BARCELONA // When the former Barcelona manager Carles Rexach – the man credited with bringing Lionel Messi to Barcelona – opined at the start of the season that the Argentine was hungry, he did not mean to eat more food.
He meant the man who is arguably Barca’s greatest player was keen to prove his doubters wrong after a less-than-spectacular 2014, keen to prove that he was the best player in the world once again.
While Messi was very good for his club before Christmas, he was not at the level of Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. For an insight into a major cause, compare a picture of Messi from the start of the season to now.
Since October, he has shed 3.5 kilograms, in part because he has quit eating pizza. But he has not quit the Italian influence completely, having taken on an Italian dietician who has made subtle changes. Messi is also doing extra sessions in the gym after training.
Not for the first time, Messi has been the leading light as Barca have returned to magnificent form. He did not add to the 43 goals this season against Manchester City on Wednesday, but his first half performance was the finest in world football this year.
“For 20 minutes in Barcelona I felt I was back in a sweet shop as a kid,” wrote Gary Neville, who was covering the game for British television. “I’ll go further and say I’ve never felt that way in a football stadium. I’m referring to the 20 minutes Messi produced before half time, which were out of this world.”
When Messi put the ball through the legs of James Milner, the third opposition player to suffer a nutmeg from him in the first half, Pep Guardiola put his head in his hands in disbelief.
Messi is the man of the moment, but it is only three months since Ronaldo enjoyed the same status as Madrid were crowned world champions in Morocco. The Portuguese was the top scorer in Spain, 12 goals clear of Messi. He is now two behind in the league.
His strike partner Karim Benzema was heralded for his instinct and one-touch strikes and the “BBC” frontline as the best in football. That at a time when Barca’s Luis Suarez went from scoring a goal a game at Liverpool to wondering how to support Messi and Neymar, who is enjoying an excellent second season in Spain. Gareth Bale? He has had easier times.
Football is cynical and cyclical. Fans talk of the status quo like it is the way it is always going to be, but it isn’t. Barca and their brilliant forwards are the fashion and suggestions of a treble have been put to their players, but headlines demanded significant change at the club only 10 weeks ago after a defeat at Real Sociedad, and they got what they wanted as an early club presidential election was called.
In the same month of January, Ronaldo sat alongside Messi in Zurich and won the Ballon d’Or. It was his moment, but his form has dipped significantly since. He is human, but before he is written off by the fickle, under-pressure Madrid president Florentino Perez was right to point out last week that 2014 was the only year in Madrid’s exalted history when they had won four trophies. They could still retain the Uefa Champions League and win the league this year.
If any good has come from Messi and Ronaldo hitting rough patches in the last year, it is that respect between the two has increased and they now readily compliment each other in public.
There was also a lovely moment before the Ballon d’Or award when Ronaldo told Messi that he played as him on his computer console.
They are the only two people who can relate to their own circumstances, where they have set the bar so high that criticism begins whenever they fail to reach their own stellar standards.
Neville is a fan of his former teammate Ronaldo, too, and recently said, "I'm starting to struggle for words to do Ronaldo justice," after the Portuguese passed the 30-goal mark in the Primera Liga for the fifth consecutive season. "We talk of Diego Maradona or Pele as gods in football. We'll be talking about Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi the same in the future."
The pair go head-to-head again tonight in a vital clasico. The football world cannot wait.
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