BARCELONA: Neymar’s sudden departure to Paris St Germain last year threatened to derail Barcelona’s season before it began, but those betting against the Catalans had overlooked the sheer indefatigable brilliance of Lionel Messi.
The Argentine superstar shrugged off Neymar’s exit as well as a slump in form for strike partner Luis Suárez, took on the extra responsibility himself, and fired the club to the title, fittingly scoring a hattrick in their 4-2 win at Deportivo de La Coruña on Sunday which clinched their league triumph.
The season had not begun well. Two resounding defeats to then-league and European champions Real Madrid in the Supercopa de España in August indicated Barça would not enjoy life after Neymar, especially when his replacement Ousmane Dembélé suffered a serious injury.
It is to Messi’s credit that Barça were still able to dethrone Madrid and romp to a 25th league crown.
The Argentine was forced to reinvent himself after playing in an attacking trident with Neymar and Suárez for the previous three seasons, compensating for Suárez’s slump early in the campaign.
While the Uruguayan struggled with knee problems and was slow to adapt to life without the extra space afforded him by Neymar’s explosive runs, Messi came into his own, scoring a jaw-dropping 11 goals as Barça won their opening seven games to race seven points clear at the top of the league.
Messi remained the architect of Barça’s unstoppable run to the title throughout the season, breaking the deadlock in a 2-0 win at Athletic Bilbao, leading a 4-2 comeback away to Real Sociedad, and assisting Jordi Alba’s late leveller at early title contenders Valencia.
Messi is also the runaway leading goalscorer in La Liga, moving on to 32 goals after his treble against Deportivo, eight more than nearest challenger Cristiano Ronaldo. He also overtook Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah as the top scorer in Europe’s top four leagues.
Messi regained his prolific partnership with Suárez when the Uruguayan rediscovered his form in December, with the South American pair hitting 25 goals between them in 12 league games to keep nearest challengers Atlético Madrid at arm’s length.
Atlético had the chance to cut Barça’s lead to two points when they visited the Nou Camp in March, but a tight game was inevitably decided by a moment of genius from Messi.
He struck the only goal in a 1-0 win with a splendid curling free kick, taking the Catalans eight points clear with 11 games left.
Visiting head coach Diego Simeone claimed that if Messi had been wearing an Atlético shirt instead of a Barça one, then his side would have won the game.
Barça manager Ernesto Valverde replied by saying there was no one like Messi in the world and he did not want to even imagine the thought of the Argentine playing for another side.