Football

Ageing Messi shows no signs of slowing down

Barca star wants to take down Ronaldo and reign again

Barcelona sold Andy Murray, but kept Roger Federer.

The Catalan giants lost one of the best of his generation, but held onto the greatest of all time.

That point was almost lost in the transfer madness, drowned out by the hysteria over Neymar's grotesque move to Paris Saint-Germain.

But the only one who really matters is still there.

Lionel Messi is still spinning past Italian woodentops, still dancing to a different, otherwordly beat, still playing Playstation football.

But this Messi seems different. He's not so much older and wiser as he is older and hungrier.

Scoring twice to ensure Barcelona's 3-0 win against Juventus in the Champions League Group D opener yesterday morning (Singapore time) seems part of a wider, personal narrative.

Messi wants his Fifa Ballon d'Or throne back. Messi wants Cristiano Ronaldo's tanned head on a proverbial spike.

Age has not withered him. On the contrary, being second-best has reawakened him.

Barcelona are back because Messi is back. Since their 5-1 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup, the Catalan side have played four, won four, scored 12 and conceded none.

Messi has scored seven goals in his last three games.

The 30-year-old didn't score in the La Liga opener against Real Betis, but he smashed the woodwork three times. The Argentinian was warming up for bigger battles to comes.

Those pining for the final season of Game of Thrones would do well to follow the fortunes of Messi and Ronaldo this season.

Winter is coming for both men and they know it.

Ronaldo reacted first, recalibrating his body until it was no longer a lean whippet of a winger, but a bulkier, penalty-box battering ram.

He now accepts that less is more on a football pitch. There are fewer touches, but almost as many goals.

But Messi touched the ball 83 times against Juventus. The work ethic remains, only the role differs slightly.

Like Ronaldo, many of Messi's wing duties have been passed down, to Jordi Alba in this instance, so he can operate in the No. 10's pocket.

It's a clever move from coach Ernesto Valverde.

No longer shunted to the left, Messi appears to run less but sees the ball more.

Like Ronaldo, he's maximising limited, physical resources.

Ordinarily, professional sport is lucky to have one-arms race between superpowers, but we are currently blessed with two and there are uncanny similarities.

In tennis, Federer and Rafael Nadal ignored the critics' premature obituaries and listened to their bodies instead. Training and playing schedules were adjusted accordingly and Federer returned to the summit.

But rivalry is the opiate of the sporting elite and Nadal soon followed. The two 30-somethings divided this season's four Majors between them.

Their rivalry unites them. Their unparalleled one-upmanship drives them both to rage against their inevitable decline, just like Ronaldo and Messi.

Ronaldo, 32, has a near pathological obsession with trumping Messi's achievements, but Messi is very much the quiet aggressor. His silence over the summer was telling.

A more egotistical giant might have made a noise about a junior partner generating more publicity and money than his talent warranted.

But Messi said nothing, perhaps reminding himself that he still collected the La Liga Golden Boot last season after scoring 37 goals in 34 games.

He said nothing when Barcelona sold Neymar, failed to land Philippe Coutinho and paid too much for Ousmane Dembele.

Just as he said nothing when critics spoke of over-the-hill legends and the final days of empire.

Like Federer, like Nadal and like his chiselled nemesis in Madrid, Messi saved his measured reply for the sporting arena.

And it was a beautiful, guttural roar of defiance.

Ahead of his first goal, Messi scampered towards the box. Six black-and-white striped shirts blocked his way. He ignored them. A one-two pass and a low strike later and Barca were ahead.

For his second, he raced away from a couple of defenders and sent his drive into the opposite corner. Even at 30, Messi treats his body like a tub of Play-Doh, bending it into all kinds of shapes to serve his creativity.

He's an ageing great with one eye on the clock and the other on Real Madrid and Ronaldo.

Messi will survive without Neymar. But he'll thrive with Ronaldo's rivalry.

Their tussle for European supremacy promises to be the most fascinating yet because they both know it could be their last.

And so do we. It's going to be a privilege watching Messi fight back for his crown.

npsports@sph.com.sg


 

OTHER RESULT (GROUP D)

  • Olympiakos 2 Sporting Lisbon 3
Champions LeaguebarcelonaLionel messi