Lionel Messi is the subject of a verbal war in the Spanish press, who are deliberating over the form of Barcelona's global star.
As reported by the Daily Mail's Thom Drake, Marca and Mundo Deportivo continue to clash over their assessment of the 26-year-old's performances:
Marca, the Madrid based sports paper, criticised the four-time Ballon d'Or winner with the headline: "The worst season for Messi".
They discuss how the 2010/11 season was his best and now he only makes a third of the interventions he did back then.
[...] Barcelona based Mundo Deportivo have backed Messi to shine saying that he never fails at this stage of the Champions League, with a big headline reading: 'The Messi effect'.
While Messi continues to receive a battering in the wake of Barca's surprise loss to Valladolid, here's a look at the upcoming matches he must dominate to hush criticism across the remainder of the season.
Barcelona vs. Manchester City, Champions League, March 12
Messi next steps onto the pitch against Manchester City, a team he sparked the downfall of with a goal and smart performance during a 2-0 win on Feb. 18. The Argentinian was perhaps fortunate to win a penalty against the wardrobe-legged Martin Demichelis, but he did everything right to create the opportunity.
This is Messi's chance to immediately bounce back after the defeat to Valladolid. A vital goal or assist against Manuel Pellegrini's side all but kills the round of 16 tie and leaves the lambasted player with a positive response in the morning's papers.
It will also give the global icon an opportunity to show that his body can stomach a full match, as he recently vomited on the pitch, per BBC Sport:
Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News comments that it could be the perfect time for City to face Messi:
Good time for Man City to play Barca if you believe Marca. 'The worst season for Messi, the worst time for Messi'. pic.twitter.com/MyHEWBL309— Rob Dawson (@RobDawsonMEN) March 11, 2014
He doesn't have to perform out of his skin in this one—Barca's two-goal lead suggests Messi doesn't need to try anything out of the ordinary—but any contribution that alters the scoreline positively will be met with praise in Spain.
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, La Liga, March 23
The closer we get to this domestic showdown, the more important it looks for Barca. With Barca currently four points behind Real Madrid, this is likely to be a must-win tie for Messi and his colleagues. Should Cristiano Ronaldo outdo his rival in this El Clasico fixture, much like he did to capture this year's Ballon d'Or, the headlines will write themselves.
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, Copa Del Rey, April 16
No matter the league result, Messi will have the opportunity to overcome Los Blancos once more during the Copa Del Rey final. This will also be billed as Ronaldo vs. Messi, but that is to be expected right now.
The winner-takes-all format of this match will allow Messi to play with fewer restrictions. Madrid are likely to harness plenty of nerves after losing last season's final. Although league form will play a role in this match, should Barca have fallen away from Madrid in the domestic standings, this encounter will provide the perfect opportunity to exact revenge.
Of course, if Messi's previous performances inspire Barca to the top of La Liga, a victory in the Spanish Cup will further destroy the media's suggestion that he is a spent force.
Barcelona vs. Athletic Bilbao, La Liga, April 20
Although this match is not as enticing as the other fixtures outlined on this list, Messi's display immediately following the cup final will garner plenty of interest.
Should Barcelona lose to Madrid in the previous battle, his every move will be judged harshly. Should they beat their fierce rivals just four days before Bilbao arrive, Messi will be viewed like a returning hero, free of pressure.
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid, La Liga, May 18
This could very well be a shootout for the La Liga title. Barca and Atletico Madrid still have a real chance of grabbing the title and will hope that remains the case by the time they face each other at the Camp Nou. While the exact situation is yet to become apparent, there's no denying this is a momentous tie at the end of the season.
Messi will be expected to lead his team toward victory. The best way of silencing critics would be to capture the La Liga trophy, especially if the Copa Del Rey can also be won.
These games will define Messi's season heading into the World Cup. If Barca end up trophyless, the press will likely rip the Argentinian apart while Ronaldo beams his smile across the world
Messi is likely already feeling the heat ahead of the Brazil summer showpiece, but the pressure will be magnified if he enters with the media on his back.