If Diego Simeone was not looking behind his back in the La Liga race to the finish line before, the new spring in the steps of the entire Barcelona lineup as they inch closer to his Atletico Madrid side at the top of the table should give him cause for concern. At this crucial business end of the 2020/21 La Liga campaign any slip-ups will be punished especially with only four points between first and second places.
If Messi and co can finish their upcoming ties against Real Sociedad, Valladolid and Real Madrid on a high note without unnecessarily dropping points, La Blaugrana will have garnered enough, in points and poise to mount a notable end-of-season challenge for the domestic title.
It is invaluable timing for the Catalans that this is coming at a period of balance in the club, after their successful elections that was won by a club hero, after the disappointing exit from Europe and after all shenanigans at the beginning of the season when it was uncertain how Messi was going to feature given the animosity surrounding his decision to leave Catalonia.
All that bad blood appears to be forgotten history now with the Cules kicking into high gear by the week in tandem with Messi’s particularly sterling piece of brilliance each time he is on the ball. Even when the team has played poorly in this rollercoaster of a campaign, Messi was the one player that continued to deliver uncompromisingly.
In a match where his remaining at Camp Nou played a pivotal part, Messi not only matched club legend Xavi’s 767th record for match appearances in the Barca shirt but netted two goals and topped off his performance with an assist, all of which were masterful in their delivery, underscoring another hard-working individual performance from the Argentine.
Evidently, the entire team deserve plaudits too. Shaky in defence at times, something which manager Ronald Koeman must continue to work to improve, yet their high press, fluid patterns of play, pacy passing and movement were all of a sufficient enough standard as to be acceptable against most opposition and brought the result against Huesca.
All these helped to make Messi’s standout performance very easy to reach. Both of his goals came from outside the penalty area, and the club captain has made a habit lately of scoring from long range.
In fact, Stats Perform data shows that 36 per cent of his La Liga goals last season (9 of 25) and 33 per cent this term (7 of 21) have come from outside the 18-yard box. Those are the highest percentage rates he has achieved in his Barcelona career and appear to signal a change in his approach to the game as he approaches his mid-30s.
By way of comparison, in the 2011-12 season, when Messi scored a career-high 50 La Liga goals in 37 games, only three of those, that is six per cent, came from outside the box. But, this season, six of his seven from long range have come in his last nine league games alone, as he become more and more attuned to aiming from distance.
His 767th match has come as Messi turns 34 in June and approaches the end of his contract this season. The uncertainty over whether he will stay at Camp Nou gets more intriguing with the election of his friend and two-time President Joan Laporta as club head again.
Laporta’s promise to keep Messi and get Sergio Aguero from English Premier League side Manchester City will be the focus as the season winds down and Barca grow in strength and confidence and Messi keeps the La Blaugrana train chugging along up the path to the summit of the table.
He has scored over 20 goals in the La Liga campaign this season to make it the 13th consecutive season of reaching 20 plus goals, which is by itself an unprecedented feat of consistent longevity at the highest levels of excellence.
That was partly why the recordholder he matched, Xavi, currently coach of Qatari champions Al Sadd, complimented the Argentine on Tuesday by writing to his former teammate: “Congratulations Leo!! It’s an honor that you match this record.”
On his part, another Barcelona teammate Arturo Vidal, who left Barcelona to join Inter last September, could not help but heap enthusiastic praise on Messi via Instagram: “One more record brother @leomessi. You are the master of football. You are the best, the extraterrestrial, the only one, the magical one. Surely you will continue to beat many more records, you are unique, an extraterrestrial hug …”