Real Madrid 3 Barcelona 1: Are Lionel Messi's best days behind him?

During large parts of El Clasico Messi was an aimless figure. Dare we say that, at 27, the Messiah’s best days are behind him?

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The Independent Online

Xavi Hernandez was taken off, Andres Iniesta limped off and Leo Messi proved utterly incapable of altering the course of events in a manner we might expect of a player considered by many to be the best in the world. 

Could it be that a baton passed  before our very eyes at the Bernabeu on Saturday night? Not so much the dying embers of tiki-taka as the most evolved technical system in the game, a development that has been under way since Bayern Munich routed Barcelona home and away in the Champions League 18 months ago, but in the decline of its defining exponent?

Messi is 27 years old. He rose to power  in a team under Pep Guardiola that  changed the way we thought about the game. No club in the history of football dominated possession in big matches like Guardiola’s Barça, whether it was against Real Madrid in La Liga or the Champions League elite.

With Xavi and Iniesta at their peaks and Messi unanswerable in a position that came to be known as a false No 9, the diminutive Argentine was only ever on top. He never had to dig his team out of a hole to win. Barcelona were never under sustained pressure. Sport is a different game when played on your own terms.

On Saturday the tempo and rhythm was set by the opposition and Messi was just not the same player. This is a criticism that until the World Cup had been levelled at him in Argentina throughout his international career.

Possession is still nine-tenths of the law, but with the fading of Xavi and Iniesta the Barcelona method is drained of its imperious force. It is a matter of fractions, but the ball moves more slowly and without the same precision.

 

Against a side built around the explosive power of Cristiano Ronaldo, supported by aggressively purposeful midfielders Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Isco, the Barça concept shorn of its central components looked fatefully outmoded.

As it turned out El Clasico lived up to its billing but not in the way we expected, not because of the contribution of Neymar, despite his beautiful early goal, of Luis Suarez, Messi or Ronaldo. The best player for either side was arguably a defender; Javier Mascherano for Barcelona and Dani Carvajal for Real Madrid.

In the second half Messi morphed into the aimless figure he has been so many times for Argentina. Denied the possession Barcelona enjoyed under Guardiola, Messi was like Samson without hair.

There will be moments against lesser teams when Messi orchestrates magical moments, and let’s face it, the fixture list in La Liga offers plenty of scope for those. But in the important matches, when Barcelona are denied penetration by the quick and powerful counter-attacks around which teams like Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea are built, then you wonder if we have not seen the best of Messi in games that matter.

Messi appeared as a fully formed genius at 19. The presidency of the United States carries a maximum two terms in office, after which the incumbent is considered beyond his best, his peak energy spent. This amounts to eight years at the top, the period of Messi’s great spell at Barcelona.

Yes Ronaldo, his rival for the mantle of world’s best player, is two years his senior but he has spread his mature work over two clubs. He has still played more games for Manchester United than Madrid. A switch in culture and experience revives the palate and allows for renewal. Besides he was not the most important player at Old Trafford when he broke into the team. Messi was always the Messiah at the Nou Camp.

He would not be the first great player to have played his best football by the age of 27. His predecessor on the lead violin, Ronaldinho, left Barca at the same age and was never the guru at Milan that he was in Spain.

George Best left Old Trafford also at 27. All three spent their epic periods as the focal points of great teams. Granted Messi does not share the off-field appetites of Ronaldinho or Best, who danced or drank themselves off the stage, but he knows what it is to be asked year-on-year to conjure the improbable whenever he takes to the pitch. Nothing lasts for ever.

With Barça facing a transfer ban until January 2016 there is no big cheque pending to replace Xavi or Iniesta. Ivan Rakitic appears well short of the standards required to give Messi the platform he needs  to excel.

Suarez will settle and Neymar will always have a trick but will that be sufficient to renew a team and philosophy in decline? Coach Luis Enrique’s system is built around allowing Messi to do as he sees fit, to wander according to instinct. This  ignores the first principles of Guardiola’s method, which harnessed Messi to do a job for the team not himself, albeit with individual brilliance.

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