This must be a weird feeling for Lionel Messi—the need to prove himself.
For much of the past half-decade, Barcelona's Argentinian superstar has reigned as the best player in the world. Maybe there were times when an argument could be made for Cristiano Ronaldo, but most had just come to accept that it was Messi—winner of four consecutive Ballon d'Or awards before this year—and then everyone else.
Things have taken a strange turn this season, though.
Barca was bounced from the Champions League before the semifinals for the first time since 2006-07, lost to Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey and now find their hopes of surpassing Atletico Madrid atop the La Liga title are quickly dwindling.
With the Catalans at risk of missing out on a trophy for the first time in six years—which not coincidentally was right before Messi began his ascent to the top of the football world—blame has shifted in all directions. However, the 26-year-old has taken the brunt of the criticism.
After dealing with injuries for the early part of the season, Messi has turned in a campaign that pales in comparison to his previous two, at least in terms of individual production:
|Season||Appearances||Goals||Goals Per Match||Assists||Assists Per Match|
Messi's slump—at least according to his ridiculously high standards—culminated over the last month, with a failure to score in both Champions League fixtures against Atletico and a similarly forgettable performance in the Copa del Rey final.
WhoScored.com's Twitter feed noted a particularly inefficient stat from the Argentine:
Lionel Messi: Has now missed more clear-cut chances (21) than any other player in La Liga this season— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 20, 2014
The bad times only continued to snowball, as according to Spanish paper Mundo Deportivo (h/t The Daily Mail), Barcelona have had to deny rumors this week of their willingness to sell their prized star.
Fortunately, as he showed Sunday night, Messi has the ability to turn things around in a hurry. The match was one that Barca will ultimately hope epitomizes the season on the whole.
The first 80 percent of the match went poorly for the Catalans. They resembled nothing close to vintage Barcelona, Messi once again looked in poor form and a strike from Aritz Aduriz had Athletic Bilbao up a goal with 20 minutes remaining.
Pedro fired back with an equalizer in the 72nd minute, though, and not long after, Messi did this:
“I’m very pleased for Messi because he defended himself the best way he knows how, on the pitch and not with words," manager Gerardo Martino told reporters afterward.
The victory kept Barcelona within striking distance of Atletico Madrid, and if they are going to catch the Colchoneros for the league title, Messi will have to forget about a disappointing start and play the hero down the stretch—much like he did on Sunday.
Where will Barca finish on the La Liga table?
It's not going to be easy. The Catalans trail Atletico by four points with four matches left, while Real Madrid is another two points behind Barca but with a match in hand.
They will still need help, but having a home fixture against Atletico on the last day of the season certainly gives Barcelona hope to claim the title for the fifth time in six years.
But if that's going to happen, the best player in the world will have to get back to playing like the best player in the world.