By Tim Hanlon
Barcelona’s talismanic Lionel Messi remains the driving force of a talented side on the brink of repeating 2009’s historic treble despite a change in their coach and style of football, not to mention a host of players.
The Argentine provided the magic and invention six years ago when Barca became the first La Liga team to win the Champions League and Spanish league and Cup in the same season and he is playing with the same panache as they seek to repeat the feat.
The Catalan giants already have the La Liga title and the King’s Cup in the bag and their focus is now on Saturday’s Champions League final against Juventus in Berlin.
Messi was described as unstoppable by former Barca coach Pep Guardiola, whose Bayern Munich side were eliminated by the Spaniards in the semi-finals, and similar superlatives have been used by others tasked with trying to thwart the South American genius.
After a disappointing 2014, when Messi failed in his mission to win the World Cup for Argentina and often looked distant and uninterested on the pitch, he is once again playing with a smile on his face.
He put Barca on course to win the King’s Cup last weekend with the opening goal, the first of a double, which will go down among the best he has ever scored, when he left four players trailing in his wake with a mazy run.
“Leo is like an extra-terrestrial,” Barca and Argentina team mate Javier Mascherano told reporters. “We are very fortunate to be able to see him do it in the flesh.”
The 2009 treble triumph was built around Guardiola’s possession-based playing philosophy that became popularly known as “tiki-taka”.
While the basis of their passing football remains the same, it has been adapted by current coach Luis Enrique to suit the latest squad.
Guardiola had an abundance of technically strong midfielders like Xavi and Andres Iniesta who suited a short passing game. They would move the ball around almost like a chess game waiting to make the killer pass.
In a golden spell under Guardiola, Barca won three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues between 2008 and 2012.
The “tika-taka” approach was also the basis for the Spain team that won two European Championships and a World Cup over the same period.
Now, in Luis Enrique’s first season in charge, Barca are playing a more direct style based on the more individual skills of Neymar and Luis Suarez along with Messi.
The South American attacking trident go into the clash with Juventus having notched up a Spanish record of 120 goals between them so far this season.
There was little indication as January began that it would be a memorable season for Barca and there was a notably frosty relationship between Messi and Luis Enrique which put in doubt the future of the coach.
With the aura that Messi holds at the club there could only be one winner in that confrontation and Luis Enrique abandoned the continual switching of players and tactics to focus on a settled side where the emphasis was on the forwards.
Since their much publicised bust-up following the first game back after Christmas against Real Sociedad, Messi has been given a free rein to torment opposition defences which he has done to devastating effect.