On 17th October 2004, Lionel Messi replaced Deco in the 82nd minute of Barcelona’s 1-0 away win at Espanyol. This weekend, 13 years on, Messi will likely play a more significant role in his side’s first big test of the league season: an away trip to Atletico Madrid
Messi’s week thus far has been highly publicised, his performance for Argentina against Ecuador lauded, his coach Jorge Sampaoli leading claims that his hat-trick confirmed his status as the best player in the world.
Without Messi, his national team would arguably have missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970 – his importance to the team is reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s performances that won Argentina the World Cup in 1986. Their talisman top-scored for the side with seven goals, five more than Angel Di Maria, Gabriel Mercado and Lucas Pratto. Next summer in Russia will perhaps be Messi’s last chance to win the world’s biggest prize and top off what has been an unprecedented career.
When Messi arrived on the scene 13 years ago, Barcelona were without a La Liga title in five years. Frank Rijkaard’s side, including then FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho and top-scorer Samuel Eto’o, ended the 2004/05 season as champions, four points clear of arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Whilst Messi had little involvement in the title victory – he made seven appearances, scoring once in the league – it provided the foundation for the success enjoyed by Barcelona and Messi in subsequent years.
Eight La Liga titles, five Copa Del Reys and four Champions League winners medals later, Messi is one of the most decorated players of all time. However, his trophy cabinet is somewhat lacking in international honours. The Gold Medal won in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is the only major championship he has won in an Argentina shirt.
Even more disappointing are the four losing finals he has been involved in – one World Cup and three Copa Americas – Argentina have lost the last three major finals that they have been involved in. After the last of these – the 2016 Copa America, which they lost on penalties to Chile, one of which Messi himself missed – Messi announced his retirement from international football. He quickly reneged on his decision, and returned to play a pivotal role in Argentina’s qualifying campaign.
We will see, next summer, whether Messi can get his hands on a first World Cup, but until then there are more pressing issues at hand with Barcelona. The Blaugrana currently sit top of La Liga, five points clear of closest rivals Sevilla and six ahead of their opponent this evening, Atletico Madrid.
This will be Barca’s first trip to Atleti’s new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, after their summer move from the Vicente Calderon. The Madrid side have so far won both La Liga fixtures at home this season, although lost to Chelsea in the most recent round of Champions League fixtures. This will be Barca’s first real test of the season in the league after their impressive start – they have played seven, won seven – and will prove an intriguing litmus test after the chaos that surrounded the club in the summer, and their embarrassing defeats to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.
With recent arrival Ousmane Dembele’s knee injury that will keep him out for up to four months, the onus will, even more so, be put on Messi. La Liga’s top scorer so far this season – Messi has 11 goals in Barca’s seven games – has never been one to buckle under the weight of expectation, a significant factor in his brilliance. With big tests on the horizon at domestic and international level for Messi, pressure will only increase as the season progresses. The narrative is certainly there for something special.
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