Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two Views on Leo Messi

With Barca having clinched La Liga last week and the Champions League Final still nine days away, there isn’t much meaningful football to discuss in Catalunya.  Thus, the big story has been to analyze the sullen demeanor of Leo Messi when Barca celebrated their title at the Nou Camp on Sunday.  Taking the negative view that Messi is grumpy about Cristiano Ronaldo passing him on the scoring lists is Ben Hayward:

So distraught at being left out of the team was the 23-year-old that he couldn’t muster the energy to celebrate a title in which he has been the main protagonist. Without Messi, there would be no league title at Barca this season, but the No.10 was in his own world, sitting on the sidelines. And sulking.

By that time, news had filtered through of Cristiano Ronaldo’s two goals at Villarreal. Those strikes saw the Portuguese move a full seven clear of Messi in the race for the Pichichi (eight according to Marca), as well as emulating the Argentine in reaching a half-century of goals for the season. Messi could even be overtaken by the Portuguese now in all competitions – and he did not look amused.

Taking the positive view is Graham Hunter:

After the game, when the team was being presented with the league trophy in a colorful celebration, I was banging away at my computer. My friend and colleague from BackPage Press, Martin Greig, tapped me on the shoulder. "What's up with Messi?" he asked.

There he was among the Barca squad, the only one who kept on his tracksuit top and trousers rather than joining his teammates in their playing kits to throw red peppers all over the place. He drifted away from Pep Guardiola's lads, who were singing, dancing and generally shaking off the tension of a long, hard football campaign.

If you had taken a snapshot, it looked like each and every player was holding a winning lottery ticket but Messi had lost his and was shuffling about looking for it -- downcast and preoccupied.

Now, I am not trying to overdramatize this. Messi isn't ticked off with his team, his manager or life in general. It is just that he literally cannot stand missing out on a game, even one that has no bearing. So on Sunday, with the league won the week before, Messi was left on the bench, having to watch an understrength Barca trundle along to a goalless draw with Deportivo.

The next day, I asked Josep Maria Minguella, the football scout and player agent who discovered Messi for Barcelona, to confirm my suspicions. He did.

"Leo lives to play, every second, every minute, every match -- it's what he thrives on. He hates not taking part in any game. That's one of the best things about him."

Shockingly enough, I’m going to side with Hunter.  Messi knows that the media love winners.  If Barca win at Wembley, and especially if Messi scores in the victory as he did two years ago, then Ronaldo beating him for the Pichichi and the European Golden Boot will not matter.  In fact, Ronaldo’s achievement will almost become part of the negative narrative regarding Cristiano, namely that he is a selfish player who looks to set himself up, whereas Messi is a team player who makes goals for those around him as well as himself.  Also, the fact that Ronaldo has gone on a scoring spree after Barca effectively clinched La Liga will add to the narrative that Ronaldo isn’t a big game scorer.  This second narrative shouldn’t have much weight after Ronaldo scored the winner in extra time in the Copa del Rey Final, but old stereotypes die hard.  Some people in England still levy that criticism at Messi after he has scored in a Champions League Final, hit a hat trick in a Clasico, assisted the winner in the Olympic Gold Medal Game, and now scored the two key goals against Real Madrid to send Barca to London.  To come back to the original point, if Messi has any degree of self-awareness (and he certainly seems like a perceptive guy), then he knows that sitting out the last two games of the La Liga season will not matter if he delivers the good against Manchester United.

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