Before the season started, there were questions swirling over Lionel Messi. After his injury problems and public disagreements with Tata Martino last year, many theorized Messi was in a downward spiral. The public "feud" with Luis Enrique this season, along with his suggestion he may not finish his career at Barcelona, only added fuel to the fire. And when the smoke cleared, Cristiano Ronaldo beat him to win the Ballon D'Or.
It's not a secret that Messi is not the same player he once was. By the end of 2014, Ronaldo had already notched 30 goals, while Messi was struggling to adapt to Luis Suárez and his new role on the right. The younger Messi had no issues being world class in that position, but long gone are the days of the flowing locks, the long-bursting mazy runs, the cheerful celebrations of the soccer world's Frodo Baggins.
Plainly put, Messi is a shadow of his former self. He's much more cynical, more selfish and power-hungry. How else can the departure of Martino and friction with Enrique be explained? It's a power play by a man who feels his powers waning. Consider: after Barcelona's 5-0 victory against Levante, Messi had only managed 37 goals and 18 assists in all competitions. A far cry from the player who once scored 82 goals in one season.
At 27 years old, we might be witnessing the twilight of Messi's career. It's a shame for a player who seemed to be on a tear just a few years ago. The regression started when Pep Guardiola exiled himself from all things football, mixed in with the politics and scandals of the Barcelona board. The weight of it all took a toll on the small Argentine. No longer is he the boy that eviscerates defenders with feints. Rather, he's just the player with the most goals and assists in La Liga history.
Once, the playmaking forward was capable of taking the game by the scruff, conjuring up magic at decisive moments to tilt the result in Barcelona's favor. Now, he's just sauntering around the field, scoring hat tricks against the likes of lowly Levante. He was defiantly anonymous against Real Madrid during El Clásico; no matter what he did and does against Atlético Madrid; everyone knows Diego Simeone always instructs his team to be gentle with his fellow countryman.
In his 300th game in La Liga, Messi managed to score a hat trick. One of those goals -- the third -- came from a penalty won by Neymar. A younger Messi would have surely scored three without needing a spot-kick. It's almost embarrassing Messi can no longer do these things on his own. How embarrassing must it have been for him to celebrate such an important goal when it was scored in the most dubious of manners?
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Really, the Brazilian could be the catalyst for Messi's demise. For one, his purchase from Santos was not well received by the Argentine. Messi took it as a sign he was being displaced. His murky transfer also played a big part in the current shambles that is the Barcelona board room, with many prominent backroom staff members set to appear in court to defend the acquisition and the ambiguity around it.
On the field, Messi and Neymar just didn't mesh. People questioned if Neymar was a flop; headlines highlighted Messi's stubbornness and decline. This season has only made everything worse. The more Neymar grows into his own, the more Messi pouts. The untrained eye only sees one of the best strike partnerships in recent memory, but the insightful observer can see the hatred behind the smiles. Messi has assisted on nine of Neymar's 24 goals this season, but what of the other 15?
The tension between the two is clear. Neymar may claim publicly that Messi is his best friend, but we all know that's PR foolishness. They're just a few incidents away from tearing each other apart. Perhaps Barça should reconsider selling Messi, before the inevitable bloodshed begins.
Barcelona should also be concerned with Messi's left foot. Will he ever be humble enough to train it properly? His first goal against Levante was yet another right footer, which now makes nine for this season. As a professional footballer, each day he should be working on training up his left, so as to be less predictable. Messi scoring with his right is almost as routine as Arjen Robben cutting to the inside.
Lionel Messi is like so many other child geniuses who flame too soon. He was just another blue star -- a spectacular, celestial being that burns so hot that they consume their fuel too quickly. He could have been a red dwarf instead -- if he was managed correctly and had been just a little bit more talented. But instead of talking about an otherworldly Lionel Messi, current leader in La Liga in almost all offensive measurables at the incredible age of 27, we're stuck mourning his former brilliance.