Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Is misfiring Lionel Messi now pining for former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 01:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona runs with the ball during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on November 1, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 01: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona runs with the ball during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RCD Espanyol at Camp Nou on November 1, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The cartoon on the back of Monday's Sport newspaper in Barcelona had Lionel Messi asking God: "I've gone four games without scoring, what's happening to me?" The joke lay in the fact that God had also been drawn with Messi's face.

The almighty's dip in form – it is the first time he has gone four games without a goal since 2011 – follows on from the end of last season when he was absent or below-par in key games.

 

This season he has suffered muscle injuries in both legs and was moved back out to his old wide position for the first clasico of the campaign against Real Madrid, from where he had one shot on target during the entire match.

 

This is no great decline. Messi has scored 12 goals in 14 games this season. He may well batter a brittle Milan defence tonight in the Champions League but, as he admitted via Chinese online social network Weibo, he is "not 100 per cent".

 

The dip coincides with the publication in Spain of a new biography entitled Misterio Messi. Spain-based Argentinian author Sebastian Fest and former L'Equipe correspondent Alexandre Juillard provide a fascinating study of what makes Messi tick, focusing in part on the breakdown of his relationship with former coach Pep Guardiola.

 

In one illustration of how the two drifted apart, Fest describes an exchange after Jose Mourinho's Real had beaten Barça 2-1 in what was Pep's last clasico in 2012. Guardiola sought out Messi at the end of the match but was dismissed by the player who told him: "What you should have done is pick a team to win, instead of what you did do."

 

Misterio Messi also highlights an interview Messi gave the Argentinian magazine El Grafico after Guardiola left the club in which he confirmed the two had not spoken since.

 

Fest says that Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, neither in the starting line-up for that clasico, had also stopped talking to Guardiola in that final season but it was Messi who failed to show for the dramatic press conference in April last year when Pep officially announced his departure.

 

The deterioration of their relationship is an open secret; what has never been explored is how it left its mark on Messi. Is he finally beginning to miss his former coach?

 

His four Ballon d'Or awards coincide with the Guardiola seasons at the Nou Camp. In Guardiola's time Messi avoided the muscular injuries that bothered him before and have since returned. The coach also moved him to the centre-forward position where he scored 47, 53, 73 and 60 goals in consecutive seasons.

 

Another of Fest's revelations is a text message sent by Messi from the back of the team bus to Guardiola at the front after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had temporarily taken his central-striking berth in 2009. Those who saw the message remember the wording slightly differently but "I see that I don't matter in this team any more" was the general sentiment. Ibrahimo-vic was gone by 2010.

 

The arrival of Gerardo Martino as coach from Messi's old club Newell's may have been designed in part to appease him, but Martino has brought the best out of Alexis Sanchez, revitalised Fabregas and managed the arrival of Neymar perfectly. Those three now provide a more than acceptable alternative forward line. "Messidependencia" is not what it once was.

 

No one believes Messi's run of four games without a goal signals the beginning of the end. But it is a test of his brilliance to hit the same heights as when the chemistry between himself and his former coach was so perfect.

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