After the full-time whistle at the San Mames, there was a sense of peace amongst Barcelona fans worldwide. Their prodigal son seemed to be back and how. In what was arguably Lionel Messi’s best performance this season, he looked to be back to being the creme de la creme, the genius that could win you games singlehandedly.
He was not just on the score sheet but was involved in every Barcelona attack. He was maybe even unlucky not to have gotten his first hattrick since against Eibar in February last year, having hit the post not just once but twice.
Messi’s performance against Athletic Bilbao took him to the top of the scoring charts in La Liga with nine goals, right alongside former partner-in-crime Luis Suarez and Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas. If that was not enough, he showed the world what he was capable of when he scored another brace against Granada, capping off a sensational display.
After a rather slow start to the season, especially by his standards, the Argentine seems to have caught up to his peers; and even overtaken them. Until the 0-3 loss to Juventus in the Champions League, Messi had managed a meagre four goals in La Liga in 12 match days. Post that loss, however, he has managed to rack up seven goals in as many appearances in the Spanish first division, which is much more like the player Blaugranes have known and loved over the years.
What seems to be the difference is wonderkid Pedri, who has been given a much more central role post the Juventus game. Barcelona gaffer Ronald Koeman began the season with a 4-2-3-1, giving Messi and Philippe Coutinho the central roles amongst the four.
Ideally, in the 4-2-3-1, the striker primarily occupies the box in the final third, looking for scoring opportunities for himself. An accurate example of this in the current scenario would be Bayern Munich, with Robert Lewandowski on a scoring spree in the very same structure.
Herein lay the problem for Barcelona. Messi has hardly ever been the kind of player to look to play as a poacher. He likes to be in control, receive passes, and play passes, look to split the opposition himself — which is why he welcomes the ball often in deeper areas, unlike a proper 9.
Whenever Messi did get a clear chance, it was most likely due to his own sheer brilliance, with little to no creativity in the Barcelona side besides him. Players like Coutinho occupying those areas and putting in average creative performances caused further harm. There is only so much even the greatest players can do with just phenomenal dribbling skills.
To unleash himself truly, the great Argentinean needed another creative presence alongside him, and Pedri has truly imposed himself as this presence. The youngster has looked to be in complete sync with Messi, linking up perfectly and nailing those one-twos Messi really loves. This has opened up new avenues for Barcelona’s number 10, as it unlocks spaces and half-spaces he would ideally love to operate in.
Pedri’s mature creative performances have also meant that the burden of innovation is not completely on Messi, and therefore he can have more freedom. The numbers reflect this change as well. Before the loss to Juventus, Messi had a non-penalty xG of 4.5 in 12 games, and since it, he has an NPxG of 4.58 in just seven games.
It is quite clear that the six-time Ballon d’Or winner had sorely missed a partner in crime since Suarez’s move to Atletico de Madrid – someone who he can link up with, someone who understood him and his movements. Pedri’s performances and gameplay have so far reflected those of a certain Andres Iniesta – a player Messi probably misses since the Spaniard’s move to Vissel Kobe in Japan.
Messi’s slow start to the season was attributed to many things – a diminished desire to play for Barcelona post the scathing and infamous interview or regression due to age being the most prominent reasons being cited by most fans – but it could simply be a case of the engine being cold and taking time to start up.
Messi’s recent performances have no doubt put a smile on the faces of not just the Barcelona fans but potential new presidents as well – who will try their best to convince him that the best place for the great number 10 is right where he is. Ronald Koeman will be breathing a sigh of relief as well – with Ansu Fati’s long term injury and Messi supposedly out of form, Barcelona seemed to be lacking a scoring touch – but the recent tactical change seems to be working perfectly in his favour.
Whether Barcelona’s club captain will stay with the Garnet and Blue still remains unclear but one thing has been made pretty clear by his recent performances – Messi is not done just yet. He is 33 years ‘young’, as some would say, and still has a lot to give. His rapid rise in the La Liga scoring charts over December is a testament to his abilities, and when it comes to it, he can still change the course of a game within seconds.
Barcelona still rely on Messi to lead from the front, and he has resumed those duties with aplomb. There is no doubt that Koeman and Messi’s Barcelona teammates must be doing the very best to help him continue on the path he has picked up over the last month if they have any ambitions of a trophy this season. Even in his potential last dance, Messi holds the gravity and capability that could change the fortunes of Barcelona’s currently staggering season – it is up to the others to make the most of it.
Stats from FBRef.
The Copa del Rey could be Barcelona’s only saving grace this season
With the league out of sight, and the Champions League a distant dream, the Copa del Rey could be the saving grace Barcelona are looking for this season.
As much as it wrenches a Culés‘ heart to see the club they once witnessed conquer Europe with all it’s might now look like a pale shadow of its former self, it’s also vital to come to terms with the fact that Barça are still in the process of recovery, patching their wounds while attempting to rediscover its former glory.
Winning the Champions League and La Liga will invariably be the main motive at a club as big as Barcelona. Still, for once, the chances of contending with Europe’s elite seems immensely slim, especially with the continuous spells of inconsistencies the Azulgranas have endured this season.
Woefully, the club have also made it a customary practice to flounder against relatively bigger oppositions, cracking under pressure in amateur fashion. It’s safe to assume these old habits will once again die hard.
It might be a little too late to kickstart a challenge for the league, as Atletico Madrid do not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down in the league and teams like Bayern Munich and Manchester City are always major forces to reckon with in the Champions League. Not to mention, last year’s finalists – PSG – await Barça in the round of 16, who will undoubtedly be a tough nut to crack over the two legs. Having a shot against established sides in one of the club’s most vulnerable states does not seem plausible in the slightest.
However, despite the chances of winning the two big trophies looking ever so minuscule, the Copa Del Rey stands in solitude, waiting to reconcile with the team that has one way or another always found itself reclaiming this esteemed trophy as it habitually dresses in the Blaugrana colours at the end of the campaign.
Having been knocked out disgracefully in the Spanish Super Cup finals, the Copa del Rey may end up being a crucial source of silverware for the Catalan giants. The prize may not be as notable as the aforementioned competitions, yet it undeniably holds value and possesses the ability to save Barcelona’s turbulent season.
Albeit there’s no guaranteeing the road to success will be a stroll in the park for the Blaugranas, it’s apparent that the situation has been made considerably easier, as the fickle finger of fate blesses Barça’s fortunes with the shocking exits of Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Additionally, the fact that Sevilla square up against Valencia and Real Betis lock horns with Real Sociedad implies that two prominent teams will be forced to bid farewell to the competition in the next round, making Barça’s road to the final substantially less complicated.
While the Copa Del Rey’s primary stages are typically utilized to award youngsters and players from the B team opportunities with the first team, Ronald Koeman understandably appears to be opting for his best players in the upcoming round of 16 clash against Rayo Vallecano, who sit at 4th place in the Segunda Division.
Owing to the fact that two of Spain’s biggest teams have already departed the competition indicates that there is simply no margin for error and seeing how even the underdogs cannot be underestimated, Barca must use this as a lesson to showcase their winning mentality, even against sides from the lower divisions.
“It is an important moment of the season, we are doing well away from home. We will put up a strong line-up tomorrow. We know that the Cup is the shortest way to win something.”Ronald Koeman | Pre-game press conference
For a team that has basked in silverware and has reigned supreme on the big stage for years, it’s absolutely quintessential to get back to winning ways. After a season full of turmoil, the Copa Del Rey is the least Barça should salvage. With the context perfect for victory, the acclaimed Spanish Competition could very well be Barça’s saving grace this season, and possibly sow the seeds for success.
Of course, it is too soon to write Barça off in any competition yet, but if there’s one thing the club have proven time and time again, it is that they are still a serious work in progress. That said, the Copa Del Rey would be a respectable achievement for Barcelona during these troubling times. Although it may seem as if it is simply an acceptance of mediocrity, the cup would be a great stepping stone for the future, a chance to not only lift silverware again; but also to get into the habit of winning.