A World Cup loss unleashes a beast in Lionel Messi for Barcelona

Lionel Messi after winning the La Liga. Photo: Facebook

As the stadiums in South Africa filled with the sound of vuvuzelas during FIFA World Cup 2010, Lionel Messi — by then already crowned the world’s best player — experienced Argentina’s worst margin of defeat since 1974. Germany outdid them in the quarters, just like in 2006. This time, it was a 4-0 defeat.

In the season that followed for Barcelona, Messi won the La Liga, the Champions League, and scored a staggering 55 goals in all competitions, while creating 24. He starred in the Champions League semis with a double in the first leg against Real Madrid before scoring one in the final against Manchester United.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Messi fell short by a whisker. Once again, it was Germany that ended his dream of winning the biggest prize in football. An image of him walking past the trophy to collect his runners-up medal became an iconic representation of Messi shouldering the burden of a country which has long under-achieved.

In the season that followed for Barcelona, Messi won the La Liga, Copa del Rey, and the Champions League, scoring 57 goals in all — a number that football statisticians had begun passing of as part of a regular Messi season. He scored two in the semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich before laying on an assist in the final versus Juventus, his 28th of the season, during the Champions League.

Two years after Messi announced a shock retirement (and an expected u-turn), the 2018 World Cup came rolling into Russia. Argentina was quite terrible in the tournament, drawing 1-1 to Iceland and losing 3-0 to Croatia in the group stages, before being knocked out in the round of 16, this time at the hands of eventual winners France.

In the season that followed, Messi has scored 46 goals already. He has won the La Liga, and, as fate would have it, scored two goals in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals against Liverpool. Without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool has a mammoth task stopping Messi and Barca from reaching the final. The strike that sealed his 600th club goal was a stunning free kick from 30-odd yards out. Unstoppable.

Messi and his record of responding to World Cup disappointments with Champions League and La Liga glory is divine. The Liverpool side, which has gone toe-to-toe with the might of Manchester City in the English Premier League, is experiencing his unhindered wrath at having failed so many times on the international stage — not individually, but with Argentina as a collective.

“Because of the reality of the Argentina squad, it sort of clouds Leo’s brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel with him as ideally as it should,” Argentina’s former coach Jorge Sampaoli said after their defeat to Croatia at WC2018.

There are no forehead-rubbing-during-national-anthem moments when Barcelona is concerned. The pressure on Messi when he plays for Argentina turns into a joyous explosion of genius for his Spanish club. And especially after World Cup debacles, it seems Messi decides to turn on a switch to prove that he’s one of the (if not the) best players to take to a football pitch.

And it is that switch — one which even Cristiano Ronaldo arguably owns when it comes to the Champions League — that tripped Liverpool in the semi-finals. Quiet for large parts of the game, Messi’s attitude to correcting an international wrong to a club right is such that it can make the world stand up and applaud.

One could easily pass off this entire theory as coincidence, but great players defy disbelief and Messi seems unlocked, unfettered and unbeatable in seasons following the big tournament that continues his comparison with Diego Maradona.

And it is Barcelona’s Messi that Liverpool needs to contend with again, this time at Anfield, where he has played just once before. That was in 2007, the time of Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho, and while Messi didn’t score or assist in that game, it is a different beast travelling to The Kop this year. Liverpool finds itself 3-0 down already this campaign. With either the Spurs or Ajax coming up in the final, Barcelona remain the favourite to win their sixth European crown.

In a couple of games, we could be talking about how three of Messi’s five possible Champions League titles have come in the aftermath of a World Cup miss. The pattern is unmistakable. The trail leads to one man lifting the title. Anything other than that will be an anomaly. But football is an odd game, where trends are created and destroyed with one swing of the foot. And Lionel Messi surely knows a little bit about that.

(Liverpool play Barcelona at 12.30 am.)