Diego Simeone might have been a little bitter in making his post-match comments following last week’s damaging defeat for Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou, but few had any issue with how the Argentine coach summed up the situation. “If we take [Lionel] Messi and put him in an Atletico shirt, we win this match 1-0,” he said. “Messi is a special player, he made the difference.”
Indeed, he did. Messi’s sublime free kick strike gave Barcelona a hugely significant 1-0 win over their closest challengers, widening the gap at the top of La Liga to eight points. It effectively ended Atleti’s belated title challenge which had been building momentum in recent weeks, crowning the Catalans as the Spanish champions in waiting.
On the whole, the clash between Barca and Atleti was an even affair, with Simeone’s side holding their own. But they had nobody like Messi to break the game for them. Not even Antoine Griezmann, who had scored seven times in his two outings previous to last Sunday’s meeting with Barcelona, could come close to the level set by the Argentinean number 10.
It was an illustration of just how dependent Barca have become on Messi. Of course, it’s natural that a team, any team, should be reliant on a talent of such quality. Messi has been the main man at the Camp Nou for over a decade, leading the club to every honour there is to win in the Spanish and European game. There’s a reason he’s considered by many to be the greatest to have ever played the sport.
But this Barcelona team is Messi’s like never before. Everything is shaped around the Argentine, to get the best out of him. Ernesto Valverde has shown himself to be an adept tactician in his first season at the club, but when it comes to Messi there are no tactics. He is allowed to, essentially, do what he wants, where he wants. It’s up to the rest to operate around him.
Valverde actually found himself under scrutiny from some earlier in the season for the way Barcelona were playing. Long renowned for being the image of dynamic, possession-based football, the Catalans were far from inspiring to watch for much of the campaign. They were boring, even. But in Messi, they always had a game-breaker. Someone, as Simeone put it, to make the difference.
Before the win over Atletico Madrid, Messi scored Barcelona’s only goal to claim a point away to Las Palmas. He also netted a crucial equaliser against Chelsea the week before that, giving his side the advantage in their Champions League last 16 tie. Early in February, he contributed match-changing assists against Espanyol and Valencia, also scoring a game-winner against Alaves.
He still has teammates of the highest caliber to call upon as support, but the departure of Neymar last summer has placed even more of an emphasis on Messi. It’s not just that he makes Barcelona a better team, it’s that Barcelona need him to survive. Without Messi, there isn’t much difference between the Catalans and the likes of Atletico Madrid. Simeone is right.
It’s difficult to know what to write in praise of Messi. So stupendous is the 30-year-old, such are the heights he has reached, there are no words left that haven’t already been said about his brilliance. But perhaps the greatest illustration of his quality now comes in the way Barcelona, arguably the biggest club in the world with one of the richest histories in the game, are moulded around their best player. Barcelona is Messi’s team in every possible way.
One wonders how Barca would cope in the event of an injury to Messi, but whenever the Argentinean is on the pitch his team has a chance, as he showed against Atleti, curling a freekick from 20 yards out into the top corner of the net. That was his third freekick goal in as many games. All Barcelona need to do is deliver him with an opportunity. That’s all he needs.
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