Barcelona ruled the game to be regarded as one of the best-ever footballing clubs when Lionel Messi was at his prime.
When Pep Guardiola was appointed the manager of Barcelona, a sudden departure of Ronaldinho shook the fans. But, it provided room for the rise of one legendary Argentinian maestro, Lionel Messi. The forward’s rise was synonymous with Barcelona’s on-field success as both reached heights beyond imagination. The club and the player were equally dependent on the other to rule Europe for several years.
Inheriting the No.10 jersey from Ronaldinho, Messi ended the 2008–09 season with 38 goals in 51 games. He was the Champions League top scorer with nine goals as Guardiola completed an astonishing treble, beating Manchester United in the Champions League final. Messi had a crucial part in that victory, netting the title-clinching second goal. Earlier, he was at it again as they destroyed Real Madrid 6-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu to get a grip over the league title.
Like his previous manager Frank Rijkaard, Guardiola also deployed the Argentine maestro on the right wing. But now Messi was the false winger and had the freedom to cut inside and play centrally. He also then was switched to a false nine position, dropping deep to link up with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. It allowed other attacking players to surge past him into the penalty box.
Messi became the centre of Guardiola’s plan. Lot of attacking play went through him and the Argentine saw the ball aplenty. As for the opponents, the plan was simple – stop Messi and Barcelona would stop too. In reality, it was not that easy!
The Argentine magician was used to being kicked and fouled frequently. He would still get up and keep running past defenders. When marked tightly, he is an expert in dragging the markers out of their positions, leaving room for other players to attack. It was always considered dangerous to mark him tightly as Messi can unbalance a team’s set-up.
He was not just a goalscorer but a very good goal provider too. He is a master at splitting a defence and can provide inch perfect crosses. Messi was equally good in closing down opponents when not in ball and tracked back frequently to help out his defence.
He followed his majestic run under Guardiola to win numerous titles and bag four successive Ballon d’Or awards from 2009-12. It truly was the golden period of Barcelona’s history.
Barcelona suffered an expected mini-blip after the Guardiola’s departure. They were thrashed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal (0-7 aggregate). Then under Gerardo Martino, they finished 2nd in the league and got knocked of the Champions League in the quarterfinals stage.
But, Messi was at his usual best, carrying the team on his shoulders. He finally found his match in Luis Enrique. The coach brought Luiz Suarez to Camp Nou and introduced a fierce front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
With Messi at the heart, Barcelona completed another treble, beating Juventus in the Champions League final. For his overall contribution, Messi won another Ballon d’Or.
Messi and Barcelona succeeded in unison under Guardiola to dominate the world, yet he continued to outplay his opponents even after the coach’s departure. His astonishing 91 goals in the 2012 calendar year is a profound remainder of his personal ability. Bottom line is both Messi and Barcelona needed each other. It was a perfect marriage to rule the game!