Last week against Espanyol, Messi wrecked the Catalan derby with a pair of exquisite free kicks, turning what was supposed to be a difficult match into a romp.
This week was Levante, the team that ruined Barça’s chance to make history last season by banging five goals past them, then hanging on for the furious comeback attempt. Messi accounted for all five goals, with a hat trick and two assists. One of the assists was a mazy, crazy dribble that dragged the defense around like a snake charmer, then some weird pass from 90 degrees to his body, like he shot the ball from a cannon or something.
Here’s the crazy part: Messi has had better matches, even as he has rarely had more decisive ones. And we don’t know what to say. What superlatives are left? What notions about the dominance of a single player offer themselves to exhausted fingers? Messi leads La Liga, the best league in the world, in every offensive category that matters: goals, assists, key passes, free kick goals. For yet another year, he looks set to score at least 50 goals.
Just think how good he would be if he was more than the fifth-best player in football.
Messi was so amazing that he overshadowed his coach Ernesto Valverde becoming — at least for a match — the swashbuckler so many craved. When starting RB Nelson Semedo pulled up with a twinge the morning of the match, Valverde adapted. He went three at the back with Pique, Lenglet and Vermaelen. Alba was the left wing, also tasked with defensive duties. The right wing, again tasked with playing both ends of the pitch, sideline to sideline, was Dembele. There was even a point, when Arthur came on for Vermaelen, that Rakitic moved to center back, where he finished the match.
If a different coach does this, people are woozy with rapture, talking about adaptation under pressure, the innovation and creative mind that allowed such a thing, etc. But it’s Valverde. So … nah. And it’s a shame, just as it’s a shame that crisis forced the hand of a coach who is conservative almost to a fault. When asked in the post-match interview if today’s adventure meant that Valverde had changed, Pique assured the world he had not. This was just today, when circumstances forced an accountant to run a ponzi scheme.
And it was fun. There has been talk about Barça being joyless and boring to watch, about people who support the team choosing to do other things rather than watch the match. If they did that for today, condolences. Because this match, this team, was fun. Lots of fun. Sometimes crazy fun, like high-wire walking in a windstorm, but fun. But first, there were some nerves.
Levante came out looking like the team that did Barça damage last season and wanted more of the same. They ran, hustled, chased the ball and attacked, passed and moved to create danger. Boateng was everywhere, finally unleashing a mighty strike that caromed off the underside of Ter Stegen’s crossbar and out. The noise was such that it seemed to wake the Barcelona players, Messi in particular, up.
The first goal, a bit of Messi-for-Suarez rapture that was quite against the run of play, got things off to the races. Then Busquets pressed the ball loose to make an insanely deft play look simple. What you saw on the TV was that he took the ball and struck a pass for Messi. But if you think about how many DMs in the game make that play, the universe shrinks. Busquets wins the ball, and instantly has the balance and presence of mind to know what to do. He takes the smallest of touches to steady the ball before spanking a line-splitting pass to Messi, who knows what is on and is already moving. He outruns the CBs, slots past the keeper, and suddenly it’s 0-2 and Levante was destroyed.
The other three goals were for fun, including Pique putting the manita icing on the cake as Barça put five goals — the same number Levante scored last season — past the team that ended their run at history. If you don’t think they enjoyed that, if you don’t think the lanky trickster Pique didn’t enjoy scoring the fifth, you must be new here.
Nobody who is honest won’t admit that Levante was hard done by in that first half, when they played off the front foot, that they really didn’t deserve to go into the locker room at halftime out of a match that they had controlled. But football is a cruel game, and Messi is even more heartless. If you get him and his team down, better put the knife in. Because if he wriggles off the hook and gets fired up, watch out.
Dembele will probably be late for training again this season, and the Barça-centric press will make much about it, about professionalism and effort, about what he might or might not be doing for the team. But against Levante, he played right winger when his team had the ball, tracked back and played fullback when the opponent had the ball. He didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his defending, but he did pretty well. And he ran. End line to end line, pressing, getting in passing lanes, working to win balls.
There is much talk of professionalism when it comes to Dembele. To be sure, being where you are supposed to be is part of that. But so is turning yourself inside out when your coach, and team demand it. The willowy Frenchman worked his ass off, and was crucial even if he wasn’t decisive. But he has been decisive enough this season, and he has work to do. Time to leave the decisive stuff to the grownups.
Pique was majestic. Like his coach, growing in stature and creativity at a moment of crisis with his best match in a very long time. And it had to be, given that he had an uncertain, mercurial forward as his makeshift fullback.
Arturo Vidal has grown into the Paulinho role that is necessary for this team to have the kind of defensive stability it needs to keep clean sheets, now three matches in a row. He is less chaotic and more controlled, evincing a manic kind of energy that finds him treating every match like a one-off final, chasing, working, jumping passing lanes and doing physical work. He delivered an excellent match for his coach and teammates, a standout performance that included a key pass. But even he has to leave the decisive stuff to the grownups.
And there was Messi, the fifth-best player in the world according to the journalists who vote for such things, a living, breathing manifestation of the silliness of individual awards in team sport. You wonder if journalists watch La Liga, if they understand the quality of the league, watch Messi week in and week out to understand how mundane he make jaw-dropping excellence. A hat trick and two assists. YAWN. Did Ronaldo score?
The past few matches have brought interesting things to consider if you’re the type to consider interesting things. There is a way of play that is developing, Dembele as the field stretches, Messi as the catalyst and Suarez — who really should have had a hat trick today — as the gleeful beneficiary. There is midfield control and effort as Vidal and Rakitic liberate Busquets to be a genius. There is the heft that eventually brought control to the match, that saw them fluff their feathers in the second half and obliterate Levante in a match that was correctly reflected by its scoreline.
But this team is weird and unpredictable. The next opponent, Celta Vigo, has been known to cause complexities, after all. But a team is taking shape before our eyes, even if we are often too busy parsing individual aspects to notice. It is a team that promised, on paper where such things are never, even decided, to be one of the best in a long time, dangerous, quick, fast and deep. And that team has Messi. It is a team that is still as unlikely to win nothing as it is to win everything, a team that is finding its way. It adapted today, anc created a hiding from an odd lineup and a complex set of circumstances. And it is a team that is fun. Even when it struggles, even when it is less than exciting, this team is fun, like a familiar movie or book. And it’s okay to admit that, to enjoy it.
And ultimately, it’s Messi. Even as opponents don’t want to see him, we should. Every chance we get.