He was only sidelined for two months through injury but as Lionel Messi took the field on Wednesday night, he drew a raucous applause from the Camp Nou, the kind reserved only for the most adored of Barcelona players and befitting that of a returning hero.
Having been introduced in the 64th minute of Barcelona’s first leg Copa del Rey fixture with Getafe, the little Argentine didn’t take long to find his feet again. He scored the third for the hosts in the final minute of normal time before adding a sublime fourth in stoppage time that captured his essence as a goal scorer and was an appropriately emphatic way to announce his return.
Naturally, the timely homecoming of the four-time Ballon d’Or winner hasn’t gone unnoticed. Barcelona have been neck and neck with Atletico Madrid in the league this season, so much so that they are almost identical in the table (save for goal difference) having won 16, drawn 1 and lost 1 each.
The two sides now face each other on Saturday at the Estadio Vicente Calderon in Madrid. Most would have been tempted to favour Atletico for what’s been touted as a crunch match and a six-pointer at the top of the table but with Messi returning to the fold, the picture hasn’t just changed, the canvas needs replacing.
|With or without Messi | It's always been Barcelona|
As good as Barcelona have been without their maestro, especially with the likes of Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Neymar stepping up, there’s an unmistakable air of mortality about them in his absence. They’re still a fantastic side but one that has to do without their most vital cog, like a magician having to perform while omitting the best trick in his repertoire. Ultimately, against fine opposition, they become a beatable side.
This season is quite evidently Atletico’s best chance to win the title since they were crowned champions in the 1995-96 campaign and Diego Simeone won’t be too pleased to have his players face a fully fit, keen and revitalized Messi.
The Argentinian tactician’s displeasure wouldn’t be unfounded either. Messi has scored 20 goals against Atletico in his career, more than he has against any other side. Remarkably, he’s notched up three hat-tricks and three braces in his encounters with the Madrid based club.
Ominous signs for Atletico right? Well, not necessarily. They can draw confidence and even pride from the fact that they were able to keep Messi at bay in their last three meetings with him. It’s not just that they managed to keep him from scoring or providing an assist but he visibly struggled to make an impact in any of those games and was rendered ineffective.
|Atletico await Barcelona | Both teams are level on points (49)|
Towards the tail-end of last season, Barcelona beat Atletico 2-1 away from home albeit in a laboured performance which Messi’s individual display personified. He struggled to influence the game and was eventually withdrawn through injury while his side scored their two goals after his departure.
In the first leg of the Supercopa de Espana, Atletico earned a 1-1 draw at home to the Catalans where Messi endured another disappointing night. He was unable to find his way through the home side’s defense and even failed to register a single shot on target.
In the return leg, Messi showed signs of improvement, running at the Atletico defenders positively but when he found himself in dangerous areas, his touch evaded him and to make matters worse, he also missed a penalty in the 0-0 draw.
What was a recurrent theme in those games was that Atletico never man-marked Messi but were instead well-drilled in defense and afforded the Barcelona forwards very little space to run into. They denied them pockets of space in which they could operate and despite allowing their opponents the lion share of possession they eliminated their threat in attack to a large degree.
“We have players at the back who are capable of stopping him.”
– Deigo Costa
Granted, Messi may lack a certain element of sharpness that he's bound to rediscover in another game or two but on the other hand, this is probably the freshest he’s felt in years. If there was a flaw to his game in 2013, it was that he began to fade and look worn out in certain matches, a direct result of the amount of playing time he was exposed to.
In a way, his latest injury was just what the doctor ordered to get him performing back at his optimum level. Even so, the manner in which Atletico have competed with Barcelona of late coupled with their own sensational form that has seen them boast the best defense in La Liga should ensure their capability to deal with a rejuvenated Messi.
Perhaps Atletico need not be ‘shattered’ by the Argentine’s timely return and it may even ensure that they remain completely focused at the back with the devastating false nine lurking. Messi has altered the equation and it is bound to be a different game now but given Atletico’s recent success against him, it’s far from a foregone conclusion.
|Will Messi’s return haunt Atletico or have they grown immune? Send in your thoughts in the comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.|
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