Lionel Messi was on target again for Barcelona against Almeria on Wednesday, opening the scoring in the 33rd minute with a sumptuous curling strike from the edge of the 18. It was the first of four unanswered goals Barça put past Almeria on the day, Messi’s 33rd of the season, and his 21st in this calendar year. Begging the question: why couldn’t he have played like this a year ago on the runup to the World Cup?
The spring of 2014 was a very different time for Messi and Barcelona. Messi was nearly 10 pounds heavier and Barça was in the midst of what would prove to be its first trophy-less season since 2007-08.
They say the two things in life you can’t avoid are death and taxes and apparently that goes for everyone, even Lionel Messi. 2014 was a bad year for Messi for a number of reasons but two of the biggest were indeed death and taxes. Messi’s tax problems are well documented. But the untimely passing of former Barça manager Tito Villanova, who lost his battle with cancer less than two months before the World Cup, was thought to have hit Messi particularly hard. So close were the two, it’s rumored that Messi remains at Barça merely because of a deathbed promise he made to Villanova.
“I will always have inside of me the things I shared with him and the things we lived through together, which I can never forget,” said Messi at the time of the coach’s passing. Messi carried his emotional, financial and apparent health problems (the vomiting) into the World Cup. By his standards, he had a good but not great tournament, despite winning the Golden Ball and carrying an unremarkable Argentina team to the final. But his “Maradona Moment” never materialized; his look of utter despondence after losing the final but still receiving the best individual player award sums up what Messi himself has called a year to forget.
Fast-forward nine months and Messi is in the best form we’ve seen him in a couple of years. Since the turn of the year, he’s lit up the scoring charts, for a time topping Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Pichichi. However the Real Madrid striker restored his standing atop the La Liga scoring charts last weekend when he scored five against Granada. But the fact that CR7’s been reduced to beating up on lowly Granada to keep up with him is a testament to just how good Messi has been this year.
You can never plan for a tragedy like Villanova’s untimely passing. And Messi’s tax problems, like most people’s, built up over time. But it is unfortunate that things came to head with Spanish tax authorities in a World Cup year. In 2014, Messi’s club also failed to have his back on more than one occasion. Looking at the way he’s playing now, with 2014’s spate of issues largely behind him, one can only wonder how the World Cup final might have played out differently had Messi been in his current form. He’s not only playing better than he has in years, he seems to be playing with a new freedom and abandon on the pitch.
Nothing’s perfect, of course; there are still rumors about Messi and current Barça coach Luis Enrique not seeing eye-to-eye. But with Barça atop the La Liga standings and still alive in the Champions League and Copa del Rey, Messi could be on track for his best season in years. It’s great to see him in this kind of form again. But it’s hard not to ponder what might’ve been if he’d played this way at this time last year.