From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 21, 2010
Pep Guardiola (left) was instrumental in presenting a much fitter Messi for the 2009 season.
When Pep Guardiola took over from Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona in 2008, visiting Lionel Messi’s favourite local steakhouse was right at the top of his ‘to do’ list.
The rookie coach was under no illusions about the size of the task in front of him and the numerous issues he needed to sort out, with Messi’s fitness being at the top of his agenda.
Since then, Barca have gone from strength to strength as the diminutive Argentinean has developed from a highly-skilled one-trick pony into the world’s finest and most influential player, culminating in his receipt of the prestigious Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year awards last month.
Under the increasingly relaxed Rijkaard there had grown an element of player power in the dressing room that Guardiola knew was cancerous.
The lack of professionalism and indiscipline of talented stars, reportedly including Ronaldinho and Deco, had spread dangerously, ultimately ripping apart Rijkaard’s much-revered Nou Camp dynasty and threatening to do more lasting damage to their Argentinean superstar.
The shy, homely Messi had naturally sought comfort in the bosom of his two team-mates and sub-consciously drifted into the clique and away from the rest of the squad.
The new Catalan coach, schooled under former Barca boss Johan Cruyff, was quick to make his mark as a strict disciplinarian, imposing fines and punishments for even the slightest infringement of a new code of conduct designed to right the wrongs apparently so regularly committed under Rijkaard. Deco and Ronaldinho were duly offloaded.
Under Guardiola, Messi was ’rebuilt’, who forced him to interact more with the rest of the dressing room; to think like a leader on and off the field and to improve himself physically.
Incredibly fussy about his food since childhood, Messi had, according to the stories, somehow spent his career under Rijkaard — a period during which he emerged from the youth system to the pinnacle of the game — dining almost exclusively on steak and cola at his local Argentinean restaurant. But Guardiola’s ascension to first-team coach put an end to that.
Some of those impressed with Guardiola’s magnificent first year in charge joked that weaning Messi off his unhealthy diet has been his biggest achievement. Indeed, the change in coach coincided with Messi’s improved physical condition and best season to date as the Catalans won an unprecedented treble of league, cup and UEFA Champions League.
Messi was already the finest dribbler in the game when Guardiola arrived, capable of awe-inspiring runs not seen since the days of his hero Diego Maradona. But, as the cracks emerged in Rijkaard’s once-mighty side, question marks arose about the little Argentinean’s all-round game.
While the twinkle toes took the plaudits and the amazing solo efforts proved as crucial as they were brilliant, observant commentators were left to question his abilities beyond that. Too often his passing was wayward, his vision seemingly extending only as far as the ball in front of him. His crosses were too infrequent and too inaccurate.
His shooting was poor, with the vast majority of his goals scored from close range in one-on-one situations. His right foot was non-existent.
Harsh criticism, perhaps. After all, he was close to being the best player in the world despite such supposed inadequacies.
But Guardiola’s arrival and obsessive attention to detail have helped Messi overtake Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s finest.
His improved condition led to his first largely injury-free season. His new-found tactical awareness has enabled him to flourish in the playmaker role, roaming wherever necessary to combine incredible dribbling technique with a more tangible creative spark.
In the 2007/08 Champions League semifinal against Manchester United, Messi’s performance perfectly encapsulated the problems under Rijkaard. While Barca dominated possession and he wowed Old Trafford with his effervescence on the ball, the Catalans were ultimately toothless and limped out feebly with a 0-1 aggregate defeat.
The sides met again in May, this time in the Champions League final; this time with the ‘new’ Messi.
And the little marvel duly capped a fine season with the second goal as Guardiola’s team outclassed United on the night to complete their historic treble — to which they have since added the Spanish and European Super Cups and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Now, Messi himself stands as a player without peer in the world game.
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