Summer 2009 marked a turning point in the career of the then 21-year-old Lionel Messi. Pep Guardiola took over as Barcelona coach, and immediately set about guiding the Argentinian towards being undisputedly the world’s top player.
Barca won a phenomenal 14 trophies in the next four seasons, with Messi scoring over 200 times, and netting in the final as the Champions League was won in both 2009 and 2011. He also won four consecutive Ballon D’Or awards, and finished as European football’s top scorer three times.
Guardiola tonight sits on the Camp Nou opposition bench for the first time, as his Bayern Munich team face Barca in their Champions League semi-final first leg.
A reunion with the coach under whom he shone so brightly might for many be a cause for celebration, or at least pause for reflection, but Messi claims tonight’s game is primarily special as a route to another Champions League final.
“This game is special as we’re fighting for all the trophies we aimed for at the start of season” Messi said. “The motivation comes from the game itself — we want to reach another final.”
Guardiola will receive a rousing reception from a sold-out Camp Nou before the game, and warm welcome from other former players like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Messi however denied that emotions would be a factor for him personally.
“A phenomenal reception is normal, given what Pep did here,” he said. “I grew and improved so much as a player during his time. He knows us very well, and we know him very well, that he studies everything, nothing happens by chance. But once the game starts, that’s not so important, it’ll be a game like any other.”
Messi’s last game under Guardiola was the 2012 Copa del Rey final, when he scored to reach 73 goals in all competitions that season and the pair celebrated together afterwards. Since then, however, they have only spoken once, briefly. When their professional relationship ended, it seems that was that.
“The truth is that since he left we have not … well we met once at a Fifa gala,” Messi said, struggling to recall the moment. “But apart from that, we have not been in touch. We had a very good relationship when he was here, but there is no relationship since.”
Whether by coincidence or not, once his former mentor left the Camp Nou, Messi’s career went into its first serious dip. Persistent fitness concerns, and an apparent lack of full focus, saw his personal nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo win the last two Ballon D’Or awards. Barca’s results have also suffered, with last season the first trophy-less campaign since 2007/08.
Asked if he had lost his love for the game at any time in recent years, Messi came closest to breaking a smile.
“Last year was a difficult year for me, for what I lived through on and off the pitch,” he said after a short pause. “I had bad luck with injuries, was away from the pitch some time, then did not feel as I wanted, as I hoped, when I returned. It was a difficult year. Fortunately this year, from the start, has been completely different. And I have felt good all year.”
This year’s blaugrana boss Luis Enrique has a very different man-management approach to Guardiola, who obsessed with putting in place the ideal structure for Messi to reach his potential. ‘Lucho’ treats all his players the same way — and not even super-sensitive superstars get special attention. Also, instead of being the entire focus of Barca’s attack, Leo must also now share the front line with fellow South Americans Neymar and Luis Suarez.
A much reported training ground row in January seemed to signal a breach between blaugrana superstar and coach, but instead helped mould the team together.
As we reach the season’s decisive stage Barca are on course to win the treble of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies, just as they did in Pep’s first season in charge.
The 27-year-old prefers not to get into outlining the pros and cons ofGuardiola and Luis Enrique, but says his relationship with his current boss is fine.
“In that moment, I cleared up what had happened, we’ve had no more problems,” he said. “Today we get on fine, normal, just like with other players. There is no problem. The team is improving over time, having picked up things the coach wants. We’re very relaxed. There is not long left now. We’re very close, but there are still important and difficult games to play.”
Messi is already an overwhelming favourite to regain the Ballon D’Or from Ronaldo this year, but brushed away a question that this was a further motivating factor behind his superb start to 2015. “The most important thing for me are team trophies,” he said. “Last year we won nothing. Individual prizes come for me, and other players, due to what the team achieves.”
The Champions League semi-final draw has brought the biggest test so far for the new Messi, who was asked again if tonight’s first leg will be one of the most pressurised games of his career.
“I do not know if I would call it pressure, but we feel an obligation to make the final, for what it means for the club,” Messi said. “So do Bayern, we are both big clubs. We are very relaxed, going step by step, thinking about the next game, no further. We are close, but there are important and difficult games to play. We must be relaxed.”
He did not look completely relaxed while speaking, and as ever with Messi nobody really knows what he feels. But we know that tonight, to regain his place at the very top of the game, he must knock down the man who helped him get there in the first place.
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