SPECIAL REPORT: The 27-year-old has shaken off problems with his coach to return to his brilliant best in recent weeks. Here, Goal looks at the reasons behind his change in form
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The New Year began badly for Lionel Messi and for Barcelona. The Argentine attacker returned to training later than most of his team-mates, but a bust-up with coach Luis Enrique saw the forward benched at Real Sociedad on January 4.
A half-time substitute at Anoeta, Leo looked barely interested in the second period – and Barca lost 1-0 to David Moyes’ men. The next day, Messi missed training with gastroenteritis (an ailment described by Xavi just days earlier as “an excuse for something else”), before setting alarm bells ringing by following Chelsea’s Instagram account.
The relationship between player and coach had become so tense that Luis Enrique told the Barca board he did not think the pair could co-exist any longer.
Suddenly, however, all of that has been confined to the past and Messi has returned to his brilliant best in recent weeks with some superb performances and six goals in his last four matches.
So what changed? Here, Goal takes a look at the reasons behind the forward’s new-found motivation.
Through thick and thin, Barcelona’s fans have stayed loyal to Messi, conscious of all the Argentine attacker has given the Catalan club over the past decade.
Four days after the defeat to Real Sociedad, Barca thrashed Elche 5-0 at home in the Copa del Rey and the Camp Nou constantly got behind Messi by chanting his name. When the Argentine converted from the penalty spot, he blew kisses to the fans in appreciation for their continued show of support.
Before the league game against Atletico on January 11, Messi then received a special trophy for becoming La Liga’s all-time top scorer and had his name chanted by the entire crowd once more.
Luis Enrique, incidentally, did not applaud, but Barca went on to play perhaps their best game of the season as Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez all scored in a convincing 3-1 win.
Messi has not forgotten how Barca fans stood by him in the past and, just before Christmas, he sent a special message to his supporters. “I want to say thank you to all my followers, who are always there in everything I do,” he said in a video dedicated to his fans. And in 2013, he thanked the Barca faithful for their patience while he took time out to recover from injury. “Thank you all for being by my side,” he told them.
Messi rarely speaks to the media and hardly ever appears in the mixed zone after Barcelona games. But he was interviewed by club channel BarcaTV following the 3-1 win over Atletico on January 11 and took the opportunity to give his side of the story.
The Argentine reassured fans he had no intention of leaving the club and also denied he had demanded Luis Enrique’s sacking.
“I have no intention of leaving,” he said. “We have to be united because there are important months ahead.”
Later, Leo caused controversy prior to the Ballon d’Or ceremony when he claimed he did not know where he would be playing next year. But he rectified it hours afterwards in the mixed zone as he reiterated that he has no intention of leaving Camp Nou any time soon, while also describing his link with Luis Enrique as “a normal player-coach relationship”.
On the rare occasions he has a problem with Barca (as with Faus in 2013), Messi talks to the media to air his grievances and his words usually have the desired effect as the issue almost always goes away. This time, he has also been liberated by getting those frustrations off his chest.
Not so long ago, Messi was on top of the world after winning the Ballon d’Or four years in a row, but he has now lost out on the prestigious prize to Cristiano Ronaldo in both 2013 and 2014.
Ronaldo, who also won the 2008 award with Manchester United, is now only one behind Messi and revealed after the gala in Zurich that he plans to catch the Barca forward.
“This is an unforgettable moment and I’m not going to stop here,” Ronaldo said. “I want to catch Messi.” And his agent Jorge Mendes subsequently said: “He is already thinking about winning his fourth Ballon d’Or.”
Later, in an interview with France Football, Ronaldo explained: “Messi is part of my motivation and I’m sure I am part of his motivation as well.”
Naturally, Leo’s competitive streak means his pride has taken a hit at losing out to Cristiano in back-to-back Ballons d’Or and he is determined to win the award next January and prevent the Real Madrid forward from drawing level at 4-4.