Bad World Cup memories be gone. Lionel Messi is back to his match-winning self.
Not even a black cat — regarded as unlucky in Spain and other cultures — zigzagging across his path on Sunday could stop Messi from sending the message that the four-time world player of the year is ready to do battle once again with 2013 Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of soccer’s best player.
The trick now for new coach Luis Enrique will be ensuring that Messi stays as fit and hungry as he looked in scoring two sensational goals in Barcelona’s Spanish league opener against Elche. Luis Enrique may need to temper Messi’s desire to play every minute of every game, so his team doesn’t lose him to injury again at the tail end of the season when trophies are on the line.
After the first season in six years without trophies, and a loss to Germany in the World Cup final for Argentina, everyone at the second highest-earning club in Europe after Real Madrid is eager to start afresh. No wonder the Camp Nou crowd looked nervous when a black cat streaked out to join the players.
But Messi’s role in Barcelona’s 3-0 victory quickly put superstitious thoughts to rest. The goals were vintage Messi, a mix of balance, quick judgment and reflexes, and changes of pace to open angles through Elche’s defence before slotting unstoppable shots just inside the uprights with the silky touch of his left boot.
Even more encouraging was his hustle, last seen on a regular basis when former coach Pep Guardiola helped Messi exploit his incredible potential.
In the 28th minute, Messi sprinted back to pressure an Elche player with the ball and cut him down with a nasty tackle. The home crowd wouldn’t have minded if he had gotten booked because Messi’s effort, as always, was contagious. The team didn’t skip a beat playing with 10 men in the second half after Javier Mascherano was sent off.
If World Cup disappointment is still gnawing at Messi, it doesn’t show. He looked buoyant, determined, even happy — nothing like the grim-faced losing finalist who appeared to have been hollowed out by the 1-0 extra time loss to Germany at the Maracana Stadium in July, a bitterness which his award as the competition’s best player did nothing to sweeten.
In Brazil, after wowing in the group stage, Messi seemed at times to be missing zip and incisiveness in later games. But the indications from Luis Enrique’s debut league game as coach seem to be that the former Barcelona player, known for his firm hand and forthright manner, has rekindled Messi’s fire.
Over the past two seasons, Messi slowly settled into a rut of waiting for the ball to come to him at the point of attack. The same was also true in some of Argentina’s games in Brazil. This despite the fact that Guardiola once said the key to winning with Messi was making sure that he runs as much as possible.
Messi also has to watch his back. In signing Luis Suarez and Neymar over the last two years, Barcelona has attacking players who could challenge Messi’s leading role if he becomes complacent.
With neither Neymar (injury) or Suarez (banned for biting an opponent at the World Cup) available on Sunday, Messi took full advantage to remind everyone that he is still the team’s star.
Messi also must compete against himself. After recording unprecedented tallies of 73 goals for Barcelona in 2011-12 and 60 more in 2012-13, it felt — ridiculously — like a let-down when Messi “only” found the net 41 times last season.
Messi’s double on Sunday left him on the cusp of another scoring record. At 27, he is only six goals from equaling Athletic Bilbao’s Telmo Zarra as the Spanish league’s all-time leading scorer with 251.
Still, it will be over the course of the entire season that Messi will again be judged. He can either further cement his place as one of football’s all-time greats or risk talk of decline.