By Lionel Messi’s exceptional standards 2014 was a year to forget. For the first time in six years he went trophyless at club level with Barcelona, whilst arguably his best ever chance to win a World Cup with Argentina came and went.
His listless performances particularly in the latter stages of the World Cup, despite being controversially named player of the tournament, led many to believe he could never return to the level that dazzled as he became the first man to win four consecutive World Player of the Year awards between 2008 and 2012.
Fast-forward a year and Messi’s displays in the past six months may even have eclipsed anything that came before.
After a brief stand off with coach Luis Enrique when Messi was left out of the opening game of the year after returning later than his teammates from their winter break, Messi has dragged Barcelona from the verge of institutional crisis to within one game of a treble when they face Juventus in the Champions League final on Saturday.
“Last year I had an inconsistent season. I was out for a long time due to injuries and I missed a lot of matches. When I returned to the field I never felt right,” Messi admitted recently.
“It was a year I tried to forget quickly and recover my best form thanks to the joy, hard work and effort that I have always had and thankfully now I feel very good.”
Messi’s change in physical state has come about thanks to a radical change in diet. The 27-year-old has lost a reported 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) since starting to work with Italian dietician Giuliano Poser at the start of the season.
A noticeably more slimline Messi has not only got to the end of the season in prime physical condition despite playing all but 70 minutes of Barca’s full La Liga and Champions League campaigns, he has recovered the pace in short bursts that makes him practically impossible to stop.
In last weekend’s Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao he scored one of the most memorable of his 412 Barcelona goals by showing a combination of strength, speed and incredible skill to burst past four Athletic defenders before firing in at the near post.
Even the coach that arguably knows Messi best of all was powerless to stop him. On the eve of Pep Guardiola’s return to the Camp Nou as Bayern Munich boss, he declared that Messi’s current form meant that “there is not a system or coach to stop talent of his magnitude.”
A day later and Guardiola learned how it felt to be on the other side od Messi’s genius as a two-goal salvo in three minutes took the tie away from Bayern.
“He is back, he is there where I had the privilege to train him,” Guardiola said after the tie.
“He is definitely back at his best.”
Juventus have defied the odds to get back to the top of the European game, but the task of not just stopping Messi but also Neymar and Luis Suarez may prove one too far.
The star South American triumvirate have combined for 120 goals this season, whilst the whole Juventus squad has managed 103.
Moreover, after a dry spell, Barca are in no mood to let the chance of becoming the first team to ever win the treble slip away.
“We came from a time when we won everything, every year we would win a title and maybe the fans like us didn’t give it the value it deserved,” Messi added.
“We went through a year where we didn’t win anything and now when the success arrives we give it the importance it deserves and enjoy it more because we know how hard it is to achieve.”
Messi may have dropped his weight, but his hunger for titles remains undiminished. – Agence France-Presse