This has been a decent season for Lionel Andres Messi. His 10th league title in 15 years. A goal a game — actually 46 in 45 games, after he hit the winner on Saturday against Levante to secure that title with three matches to go.
He has been involved in more than half of Barcelona’s 86 league goals: 34 scored plus 13 assists.
A decent season — astonishing by most standards. But then Messi has scored more than 40 goals in each of the last 10 seasons and 60 or more on two occasions. His contribution to Barcelona has been unique.
To put it in perspective, before Messi celebrated his first league title in 2005, Barcelona had won La Liga 16 times compared to 29 for Real Madrid. Barca now have 26 compared to 33 for Madrid. The Camp Nou trophy room is packed with silverware, and a third of it has been won with Messi’s goals. He needs just two more to reach 600.
Jorge Valdano once described Messi as “Like Maradona, but he does it every day”. But even so, Argentina’s finest has suffered an eclipse over the past few years — a partial eclipse at any rate.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the name of the eclipser, and he has achieved it for two reasons. Unlike Messi, he has led his country to glory. And he has won three consecutive Champions League crowns — a feat that previously looked impossible.
Ronaldo has come to overshadow Messi in Europe, and it seemed he might do so again for Juventus after his hat-trick against Atletico Madrid. Messi once scored five against a hapless Bayer Leverkusen, but that Ronaldo hat-trick not only knocked out Atletico but equalled Messi’s record of eight Champions League triples.
There is mutual admiration between the two of them, but there is also an edge to the rivalry. Messi drily described Ronaldo’s hat-trick as “impressive”, and then added “I thought Atletico would be tougher”.
It sounded like a comeback to Ronaldo’s sly remark about Messi moving to Italy:
I hope he accepts the challenge like me… I’ve played in England, Spain, Italy, Portugal and for my national team, while he’s still in Spain.
Messi just about managed a straight face when Juve lost to Ajax, saying “every opponent is complicated”, but you can imagine a quiet grin of satisfaction away from the cameras.
Now, however, he has to grab his chance. Liverpool are opponents he knows from a long while back — two matches 12 years ago, when Liverpool defeated Barcelona on away goals — and they are one of the few sides he has not scored against.
Tomorrow night’s game and the return next week also have an added spice to them because of Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho, two Anfield favourites, both of whom started against Levante on Saturday.
Suarez forced a fine save from the Levante keeper Aitor Fernandez and Coutinho then struck the bar from a free-kick, but it was by no means a great Barcelona performance and Coutinho gave way to Messi at half-time.
Levante, 15th in La Liga, refused to roll over and it took a lovely sleight of foot from Messi to win the game, his familiar curling left foot shot finishing just inside the far post.
Liverpool will feel encouraged by the way Barca were frustrated, especially as Levante have the worst defensive record in the league, including a 5-0 defeat in the reverse fixture when Messi hit three.
Three weeks ago, against a stubborn Atletico, Barcelona failed to score until the final five minutes against a side reduced to 10 men for over an hour. Liverpool also have the ability on the break that could give them at least one away goal.
So the betting is that Messi’s performance will be decisive one way or another, both tomorrow and next week. He tops the Champions League scorers’ list with 10.
He last headed the list four years ago, jointly with Ronaldo and Neymar, but this is the first time he has been up there alone since 2012. It is not his happiest memory, as that was the year he missed a semi-final penalty and Barcelona went out to Chelsea.
The memory haunted him for a while, but he now has a golden opportunity to make amends. And, in doing so, he can put one over the man who has eclipsed him in recent years.