Ballon d'Or: Metropolitano masterclass shows Messi remains a cut above

By Sports Desk December 02, 2019

That such brilliance at a key moment of a pivotal game felt somehow inevitable underlined how much Lionel Messi has spoiled us for so long.

Needing to dart in-field towards a packed defence on a sodden playing surface, before receiving a bouncing return pass 20 yards from goal, with one of the world's best goalkeepers between the posts.

Those would not represent favourable circumstances for any other player. But when Messi drew back his left boot to caress a side-footed finish, Atletico Madrid number one Jan Oblak knew what was coming. So did the 64,226 fans inside the Wanda Metropolitano and they had about as much chance of averting a 1-0 defeat.

The arc of the ball, low into the left corner, mimicked his last-gasp Clasico winner at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2017. Another showreel moment in a career bursting with them.

As usual, with Barcelona nudging back ahead of Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga on the eve of the Ballon d'Or ceremony in Paris, Messi's timing was impeccable.

"I don't follow these awards galas because they are too long," said Barca boss Ernesto Valverde afterwards, luxuriating in his embattled door-to-door salesman demeanour. "But if you have to give it to the best, let's just give it to Messi and the problem is solved."

Messi = problem solved. It's been the story of Valverde's Barcelona tenure to an even larger extent than it was for his predecessors

Normal service resumed?

The 32-year-old is tipped to collect the sixth Ballon d'Or of his career in the French capital on Monday and once again move ahead of eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the overall standings.

If he does, it will be natural to sympathise with Virgil van Dijk, insofar as the Liverpool and Netherlands centre-back's bravura campaign came the year after Luka Modric was a celebrated recipient of the game's grandest individual honour.

Champions League glory with Real Madrid and inspiring Croatia to the 2018 World Cup final, embellishing a career of sustained excellence and artistry, made Modric a worthy candidate. But his cause was helped by a thirst for it simply to be someone else. Those 50-goal seasons had become so run of the mill.

Messi or Ronaldo had taken home the prize every year since Kaka triumphed in 2007. Now Modric has served as a kind of sorbet for that decade of footballing decadence, Van Dijk might suffer for the fact nobody needs their palate cleansed anymore.

It will be Messi's first Ballon d'Or since 2015, which is the only time he has been officially declared as the best player in the word in the past five years. Last year, he failed to make the top three. That same inevitability that served him so well in a damp Madrid on Sunday night has hindered him in this regard.

Messidependencia 3.0

Messi's stellar career can be roughly broken down into three acts.

The prodigious youngster blessed with the easiest touch you've ever seen, phenomenal awareness and blistering acceleration – he didn't walk as much back then – was instantly noteworthy at Barcelona before becoming the shimmering jewel in Pep Guardiola's all-conquering side around the turn of the last decade.

Under Luis Enrique, the emphasis shifted from super-team to superstar forward line and Messi dazzled alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar. MSN swept all before them on the way to a treble in 2014-15, an attack of potent brilliance unlike anything else.

In between those two periods, during the reign of the late Tito Vilanova, talk of Barca's "Messidependencia" really began to grow. He scored an absurd 70 goals in the 2012-13 season.

Guardiola joked that pouring over the tactical intricacies of his Barca side was futile, given the plan was simply to give Messi the ball. Valverde would not laugh that one off so easily because the Blaugrana have never depended on their captain as much as they do right now.

The huge drop-off in standards when Barcelona are without Messi is startling and last season's Copa del Rey offered a clear demonstration. He was rested for the first leg of ties against Levante and Sevilla, they lost both and he was recalled each time to score in comfortable return wins.

Van Dijk has a decent claim to being the next most important player in world football when tying the presence of an individual to the fortunes of a team. The Dutchman's £75million arrival from Southampton transformed a destructive but inconsistent side into a relentless winning machine.

If Liverpool continue their unblinking Premier League form, Van Dijk can expect to be in contention for the Ballon d'Or next year. And why shouldn't they?

Jurgen Klopp can call upon 2019's answer to MSN in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, while their star centre-back is flanked by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson – probably the best pair of full-backs any club can boast.

The team-man in the one-man team

Beyond goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, whose heroics against Atletico laid the foundations for Messi's own, it is hard to make a strong case for any of his Barca team-mates being serious contenders for a world XI. Frenkie de Jong, perhaps, but that would owe much to his body of work at Ajax.

It seems laughable to think one of the arguments made by Messi detractors during those interminable Leo v CR7 debates was that he only succeeded because of the Barcelona team in which he played. Then as now, it was a case of brilliance being taken for granted.

"I'd like to have an explanation about Leo, the talent he has," Valverde said after his key man's latest masterstroke.

"But not just that, because there are a lot of people with talent. Leo's can be seen always. He has an ambition and a sense of obligation with the club, which you see in every game."

Just because Messi does these things all the time doesn't make them any less remarkable. He is a team-man and a one-man team who continues to stand above the rest.

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    Bayern Munich are making plans for Lionel Messi, but Hansi Flick is well aware of the threat of the rest of the Barcelona team in their Champions League quarter-final.

    Bayern face Barca in Lisbon on Friday in a match the Bundesliga champions are expected to win, having been in dominant form in recent months.

    But the Blaugrana have Messi in their ranks, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner seemingly determined to get his hands on a fifth European crown, the most recent of those coming in 2015.

    Questions at Flick's pre-match news conference focused on the threat of Barca's number 10, yet the head coach was keen to remind reporters there will be more to the match than Messi.

    "It's not Bayern Munich against Messi, but against Barcelona," he said. "Of course we have thought about how we will play against him.

    "It is possible that we will play together to counter him as a team. We have to recognise the spaces, put him under pressure and try to win the one-on-one duels."

    Flick added: "We have the necessary respect for Barcelona because they have been the dominant team in recent years. Many coaches and clubs have been inspired by Barca.

    "They're nice to watch, the way they play, the way they train, their enthusiasm.

    "Messi is not the only player who stands out. [Gerard] Pique, [Antoine] Griezmann, [Ivan] Rakitic and [Luis] Suarez are top players. [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen is a world-class goalkeeper.

    "They have enormous quality and experience and we have to go against that as a team and bring our quality. We have a plan and hope that it works."

    While opposite number Quique Setien suggested Robert Lewandowski was not in the same class as Messi, Flick refused to be drawn into a comparison between his talisman and Barca's.

    "You can't compare the two players," he said. "Lewandowski is a world-class striker and has tremendous quality. For us, he is someone who guarantees goals but also creates goals.

    "Messi has been by far the best footballer over the past few years. He's an exceptional player and I don't know if someone like that will come around again."

    Teenage left-back Alphonso Davies has been one of the stars of the Champions League campaign so far but may now be the man tasked with marking Messi.

    Team-mate Thomas Muller is determined not to leave the Canadian to face his mammoth task alone, though.

    "Messi is in good shape, but you never defend him alone," Muller said. "My experience from the games in which I faced him was that it worked when the whole team was there.

    "We have to act together against this individual quality. Alphonso Davies is also key here, but he is not alone."

  • Lewandowski's extraordinary but Messi's from another planet – Vidal Lewandowski's extraordinary but Messi's from another planet – Vidal

    Arturo Vidal is well aware of the threat posed by Robert Lewandowski ahead of Barcelona's Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich, but remains convinced Lionel Messi gives the Blaugrana the edge.

    Both Barca and Bayern came through their last-16 ties relatively comfortable in the end, Quique Setien's side beating Napoli 4-2 over two legs and the German champions crushing Chelsea 7-1 on aggregate.

    Such an emphatic progression, coupled with their form after the coronavirus-enforced pause, has led to many deeming Bayern to be frontrunners to win the competition.

    Lewandowski will surely be crucial if they do go all the way – the Poland striker having scored 53 times across all competitions this term, including 13 in just seven Champions League matches.

    But claims from former Bayern players that Lewandowski is ahead of Messi are wide of the mark, according to his former team-mate Vidal.

    "Lewandowski is extraordinary, very dangerous, a tireless scorer," the Chilean told reporters ahead of the showdown on Friday. "I was with him three years; I know how he prepares. It will be very difficult to stop him.

    "But comparing him with Leo [Messi] is impossible, because Leo is from another planet, although Lewandowski is the best striker alongside Luis Suarez."

    Setien agreed, stating: "Lewandowski is a great footballer but I don't think he's up to Leo's level.

    "It's clear, [Lewandowski] is in a great moment and he's very well assisted by team-mates who can hurt us, but we also saw Leo against Napoli. It's good that we can enjoy footballers like that."

    Another player who has caught the eye since the Champions League's resumption is Neymar, who produced a typically exuberant – albeit somewhat wasteful – display as Paris Saint-Germain claimed a dramatic 2-1 win over Atalanta to reach the last four on Wednesday.

    The Brazilian is reportedly a long-term target of Barca, the club he left to join PSG in 2017 for a world-record fee, and Vidal acknowledged that Neymar would strengthen the Blaugrana.

    "It is understood that Barca wants to recover him [Neymar], not only because of yesterday's game," Vidal said.

    "He was already at Barca and had an exceptional performance, he showed his level. He is very talented and would help the team a lot, but I don't know more.

    "We only think about Bayern and going through tomorrow. It is difficult to speak at the moment about other players."

  • Dembele back and Setien confident Barcelona can match Bayern Munich Dembele back and Setien confident Barcelona can match Bayern Munich

    Barcelona have Ousmane Dembele fit again for their Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, with coach Quique Setien confident his side can hold their own.

    Winger Dembele has been out since November after rupturing his thigh muscle but is in line for a long-awaited return in Lisbon on Friday.

    Setien told a pre-match news conference: "We have arrived in good spirits. This is the game we are waiting for. We have prepared well.

    "It is a satisfaction for all of us that Dembele is in the squad and I think he will be in a position to participate for a few minutes if we consider it appropriate.

    "We are excited that he can play and get it right."

    Bayern look well placed to go all the way in the competition, having romped to a domestic double in Germany and swept Chelsea aside in their previous European tie.

    Barca, on the other hand, lost their LaLiga title to rivals Real Madrid and have struggled to convince in recent months.

    But Setien remains positive of their chances, saying: "Of course, we are convinced we can go through.

    "We know the potential of the opponent, their numbers and their capacity, with extraordinary potential, but we have that, too.

    "I think it will be an even game. We have a lot to say in this game."

    The coach is keen to ensure Lionel Messi is not left to do the job alone, however, even if he is highly likely to play a key role.

    "Leo can help win the game, obviously, but I have always believed in the strength of the team," Setien said.

    "We will have to assist Leo because both Messi, like any other outstanding player, is weaker without the strength of the team."

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