Lionel Messi has history at Wembley. It was there that Barcelona beat Manchester United to win the Champions League in 2011. “Nobody has beaten us like that,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. Rio Ferdinand turned to his teammates as the trophy was raised. “I’m embarrassed,” he said.
Messi was the man of the match that night and he was when he returned to the stadium to star against Tottenham in 2018. He scored twice in a 4-2 win, hit the post twice and left many on the floor in awe. “Messi eats at a separate table,” said his Barca teammate Jordi Alba.
It was a comment that was partly a response to Messi’s exclusion from the top three at the FIFA awards that had been held in London a few days earlier. “With all due respect,” said Ivan Rakitic after this amazing performance, “there is one guy who is better than the rest.”
Messi returns to Wembley on Wednesday night to captain Argentina against Italy in the Finalissima, a match between the South American and European champions. He does so with his status as the best player in the world fading, reshaping his reputation.
He is no longer in the calculation of the Ballon d’Or, anointing Karim Benzema as a worthy winner of that award. Instead, there has been criticism of him at Paris Saint-Germain. Having scored just six league goals, it’s hard to argue that Messi is the best player in his team, let alone in the world.
Which leaves the rest of us in a curious position, as perhaps the best player to ever play this game finds himself among the pack again. Still elite, of course, but not a cut above. The best of all, but not the best now. It’s no wonder sports icons prefer to retire at the top.
Usain Bolt retired immediately when he was beaten for the first time in a major championship in a decade. He urges boxing’s greats to quit immediately when they start to slip. Those who are smart enough to do so are praised for protecting their reputations and health.
But outside of the world of pugilism, there is much to enjoy when a legend plays. You shouldn’t miss the sight of Tiger Woods competing again or the chance to see that Roger Federer forehand one more time. Wembley fans are hoping to see another Messi moment.
How good is Messi now?
Look beyond the lack of goals and, even in decline, the evidence is there to show that Messi is still an extraordinary footballer. Pep Guardiola recently lamented the limitations of statistics in assessing player contributions. Summarizing Messi with goals has never felt satisfying.
There have been near misses this past season. He has hit the goal frame from free kicks more than anyone else in France. But it is inescapable that there has been an alarming decline for a player who averaged 35 league goals per season during his last 12 years at Barcelona.
In a few weeks, Messi will be 35 years old and there should be nothing controversial about the suggestion that his level has dropped. The eye exam reveals a lot. The old change of pace is gone. He still has the ability to elude men more than a decade younger, but he can’t outrun them.
The expectations when he arrived in Paris were so high that many have been left disappointed. The ratings of the players from the French newspaper. L’Equipe they are notoriously tough but highlight the baggage Messi brought with him. People demand the best.
He was described as having lost in a game against Rennes and was given a rating of just four out of 10. This was a game in which he created the most chances for his team-mates and completed the most dribbles of any player on the field. . It wasn’t close enough for his critics.
He had his moments against Nice but L’Equipe He gave him a score of only three out of 10. He was PSG’s most incisive player against Nantes but he took a four. Against Monaco, when his solo run set up Kylian Mbappe to score? According to L’EquipeHe seemed lost again. four
So vivid is the memory of those wonderful years at Barcelona that it is difficult to judge Messi by any standard other than his own, and no one has matched him before or since. With a change of thought, you may find that the old master can still play a bit.
Messi’s former manager may not approve of the increased use of stats, but they can be useful in taking the emotion out of analysis. Strip away the preconceptions, the narrative of a disillusioned footballer, a player in steep decline, and a different picture emerges.
the popular website who scored calculates your player ratings based solely on event data: passes, shots, chances created, tackles and much more. That dispassionate view of Messi’s performance levels suggests that he remains one of the best players.
His average ratings this season rank him as the second-best player in France and the third-best in any of Europe’s top leagues last season, behind only Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski.
Many times it has been said that Messi is an alien. Well, what would his performances look like if a player who produces these performances had come out of nowhere this season? Would it be any different if he was judged by what is happening now instead of what happened before?
It is likely that he will still be seen as the most creative player in the game.
In the win over Saint-Etienne in February, Messi threaded a clever pass between four opposition players to find Mbappe for the equalizer and then slipped into the penalty box between three men to set the same player up for what turned out to be the winning goal. for PSG.
A week earlier in Nantes, his transfer to Neymar left out eight rival players for the Brazilian to score. Perhaps you would have preferred the magnificent pass behind the defense to set up Ángel Di María for the winning goal at Saint-Etienne in November.
That was one of an assist hat-trick in that game. There were 14 of them in total, the third most in Europe’s top leagues. He completed more through balls than anyone. Those deep passes like the one Mbappé found really underline the difference between Messi and the rest.
This metric has long been an indication of their vision. Since 2010, there have been 199 of them in the Champions League. He’s likely to reach his double passing century before any other player brings in triple figures in that time frame. It’s outrageous, a contrast to Don Bradman’s style.
That points to his historical brilliance with the ball at his feet in the opposite half and with runners in front of him. But Messi also made more through balls than anyone else in the Champions League. this season also. The pace has slowed but the creativity remains.
Mbappé’s performances in the same shirt make it impossible to argue that Messi is a level above the rest these days. But look past the scoring stats, try to examine his performances with fresh eyes, and it’s soon easy to see that he’s still an amazing player.
Finding joy in Messi’s final act
With that in mind, maybe there will be a reevaluation soon.
After all, there is precedent and pattern with this.
Domination causes division and then mocks those who like to think they have seen weakness before everyone else. Messi’s arguable Ballon d’Or last year did him few favours, fueling the view that this special player was getting special treatment.
But there is always the next phase. Stephen Hendry, known as the King of the Crucible, found more love among the pool crowd when he was no longer on top. Michael Schumacher had Formula One fans wanting him like never before when he made his surprise return to the sport.
We are in the final act now. Sport, unlike theater, rarely saves the best for last. But there will be a touch or a twist, perhaps even goals and glory. There’s the tantalizing prospect of something to distract the crowd and send someone home happy. And that’s nothing.
It will be impossible for Messi to do anything on Wednesday night to match his most magnificent achievements at Wembley. But there will be young people in that crowd who have never seen him play before and many more fearing they will never see him live again.
It’s time to cherish every Messi moment we have left.