Lionel Messi Strike Keeps Barcelona Clinging on in Title Race

Rik Sharma@@riksharma_Featured ColumnistApril 20, 2014

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Lionel Messi scores as Barcelona win at the Camp Nou. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

But unlike the countless effortless triumphs the Argentine maestro has notched as the Catalan giants pump their opponents senseless, this was a struggle.

More than a struggle—it was the latest addition in a series of disappointments for Barcelona supporters.

It would be churlish to write off the 2-1 victory as lucky, because there was nothing fortunate about the surging run from Messi which had to be stopped brutally by Oscar de Marcos on the edge of the box.

Still less about the free-kick, bludgeoned into the bottom-left corner by the boot of a man who had not scored for nearly four matches.

When you're Messi, that’s a long time.

Particularly when the knives have been out during the past fortnight, which has seen three of the worst performances in the 26-year-old’s virtually flawless career.

Tata Martino took the blame for Messi’s showing against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, shoving him on the right wing to play Cesc Fabregas as a false nine.

Messi wasn't at his finest but still made the difference.
Messi wasn't at his finest but still made the difference.Manu Fernandez

We saw how that turned out, with Barcelona being dumped out of Europe and Messi barely running further than goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto.

Then came the appalling defeat to Granada in La Liga, in which Messi barely seemed to touch the ball, and afterwards, the Copa del Rey final.

Barcelona lost to Madrid, and in stark contrast to the league game between the two, where Messi scored a hat-trick, he was ineffective.

But Xavi, speaking in the mixed zone after the game, said, as per Inside Spanish Football

"Today, once again, Messi decided the result. Too much is asked of him on too many occasions. We need to keep him calm and let him do his work."

In a way, the veteran is right. Messi is a quiet genius and to be the subject of constant speculation is not helpful.

Perhaps, though, it had an influence—late on, Messi was chasing Athletic Bilbao players and trying to recover the ball.

It was far from a vintage Barca display.
It was far from a vintage Barca display.Manu Fernandez

Xavi continued:

We’re eliminated from the Champions League and we lost the Copa del Rey.  Those were two devastating blows for the team and we needed to overcome them.  We need to continue playing at our highest level because this team still has to fight.

We need to work hard, run, fight and win in order to reverse our situation, knowing all the while that things are out of our hands.  We need to do our job and win the four remaining games.

The fans are very results driven.  We lost the Copa del Rey and the Champions League and the fans began to doubt us.  We continue to work knowing what the fans expect from us.

An example of the fans being extremely results driven was clear on Sunday night. 

When Barcelona conceded to Aritz Aduriz, who drilled home excellently, the fans were upset. They began to whistle and wave white handkerchiefs. Then, when Xavi was replaced by Fabregas, they raged against the substitution.  

Bilbao impressed at the Camp Nou.
Bilbao impressed at the Camp Nou.Manu Fernandez

However, moments later, Pedro scored on the break, and then, Messi completed the comeback. The fans were on their feet and chanting for Barcelona, all the previous agony forgotten.

They were still singing when they piled out of the stadium and waited by the metro stations.

For all the talk of crisis and the blows raining down on them, Barcelona are still in this title race.

They are four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid and two ahead of Real Madrid, although Carlo Ancelotti’s team have a game in hand.

All it takes is one slip by Atletico, and with a victory on the final day against Diego Simeone’s side, Barcelona have a great chance of retaining their title.


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