What crisis? Lionel Messi shines as Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid
Barcelona finds itself preoccupied with several big questions right now, but the key one is this: Who bosses whom at this complicated institution? The circumstances around the shock defeat at Real Sociedad with which they began 2015, where the coach dropped the totem Lionel Messi and a trio of other senior men, provoked a week of self-scrutiny ahead of the visit of Atletico Madrid, the Spanish champions.
Evidence of a rift between coach, Luis Enrique, and the superstar emerged. There followed the announcement by the president, Josep Mari Bartomeu, himself only a year into the post because of a crisis of authority around his elected predecessor, that he would call elections for this summer.
Crisis? It looked that way. Yet when Barcelona play soccer like they did in the first-half of their 3-1 win against Atletico Madrid, there is only one boss. He is the man who on Monday will almost certainly be named as runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Ballon D’Or award; he is the individual far more loved than a coach or a president by the 85,000 fans whose attentions have been focussed lately on perceived power struggles.
Ask Jesus Gamez, the defender who had the bad luck to be lined up at left-back for Atletico last night, who bosses business at Camp Nou? Gamez, signed by Atletico from Malaga in the summer, is normally a right full-back. His left foot is his weaker tool, but he had come into this fixture tasked with patrolling the Barcelona right flank, territory principally occupied by Messi.
There is a theory among some coaches in La Liga that when Messi starts on the right wing, the position that was his own in the years he first established himself as the darling of barcelonistas, and as the finest dribbler of his generation, that having a right footed player marshaling him is a wise plan. The rationale is that Messi tends, mostly, to cut inside his marker from there, onto his left foot.
Poor Gamez. He may have heard that theory. He quickly saw its flaws. For the first 45 minutes, he watched at close hand a demonstration of Messi’s ability to go past opponents on their outside and on the inside. Barcelona’s first goal, after ten minutes, came from a Messi cross, right to left, the finish provided by Neymar.
The move that led to the goal had been all about Messi’s dexterity. It had also featured nimble work from each of the four players â Dani Alves, Ivan Rakitic, Messi and Neymar – left out of the starting XI, controversially, by Luis Enrique a week earlier, in the 1-0 loss at Real Sociedad. When Messi did not attend practice the day after that defeat, citing illness, stories of confrontation between coach and icon multiplied.
Against Atletico, those tensions were archived. Messi bossed Barca brilliantly as his team doubled its lead and should perhaps have scored three or four times by half-time. They went in 2-0 ahead. Gamez chased his torturer’s shadow again, as Messi set up Suarez to volley in the second Barcelona goal, and Gamez’s protests that Messi had used his upper arm to help him control the ball that he then guided past Gamez - past the full-back’s right side this time – found no sympathy with referee Undiano Mallenco.
Gamez versus Messi would be a storyline with twist, however. On an evening of aggressive duels, and plenty of off-the-ball verbal sparring and muscular barging by two teams who were locked together, equal on points, at kick-off, Atletico won a penalty. Messi concedes very few of those, but in a rare moment defending his own area, it was he who lightly tripped Gamez.
Mario Mandzukic converted the spot-kick to put a combative Atletico back in the contest. They upped their performance, aggravated Barcelona at times, but Luis Enrique felt increasingly gratified by how effectively Barcelona defended from corners, where Atletico are so effective, and how they stood up to the champions physically.
Victory means Barcelona open up a three-point lead over Atletico. They close the gap on leaders Real Madrid – who returned to winning habits with a 3-0 triumph Saturday against Espanyol – to a single point, though Madrid have a match in hand.
After a week of alarm around Camp Nou, Bartomeu breathed a sigh of relief. "I see Messi leading the team in a period of building," the president told Vanguardia, the Catalonia-based newspaper. "And if there are from time to time disagreements, involving other players - not with Leo - or with coaches and players, it’s a normal situation."
Messi, meanwhile, returned his personal record against Atletico back towards normal late on in the evening. As time seemed to be running short for him to break a curious drought of goals against this particular opposition, he exchanged passes with Rakitic and stabbed home Barcelona’s third. It was Messi’s first goal against Atletico in six meetings. The champions, and the suffering Jesus Gamez, must think of some new ways to contain his genius.