To some people, perhaps even to many of them, or maybe just to me, Lionel Messi serves as a reference point for our time. They mark the passage of the years, in part, by Messi’s seasons and his goals and his trophies. In modern soccer history, his ascent, his prime and the imminent threat of his decline are standalone eras. And so normalcy would not return to the game, things wouldn’t feel like they were truly back to the way they were before, until Messi was back on a field, dominating hapless defenses.
On Saturday, in Mallorca, FC Barcelona played its first game since March 7. The fans were artificial — hopelessly so, like in every other La Liga game since its return on Thursday — and so was the sound these crude pixels emitted. Things weren’t the same. But Messi was real. Messi was the same. Messi was Messi.
Winding and weaving, lingering in his own half one moment and facing down a defender in the other box the next, ball at his feet, terrorizing Mallorca with his shimmies and feints alone. He plainly conserved his energy for much of the game. He’s never run all that much. He reliably puts in the fewest miles out of any player on the field who isn’t a goalkeeper. But he clearly picked his spots, having just shaken off a series of niggling injuries to go 90 minutes.
That’s been one of the upsides to the 98-day intermezzo. Messi got his first significant rest in many years, having spent most all of his summers in the last decade playing in the endless international summer tournaments with Argentina. Likewise, striker Luis Suarez could recover from his January knee surgery which was initially supposed to keep him out for the remainder of the season and came on as a second-half substitute.
But if Messi ambled and strolled a lot, so did everybody around him. First-place Barca and 18th-place, and relegation-threatened, Mallorca took turns actually running and attacking. The proceedings had a distinct preseason pace to them. It’s just that Barca was far more effective when it bestirred itself to make an effort, winning 4-0.
Just 65 seconds in, Frenkie de Jong lost and then reclaimed the ball and found Jordi Alba to his left. The defender swung in a signature cross. Arturo Vidal battled his way to the ball, doing what we’re used to of him as well, and nodded it home.
After a narrow 1-0 victory over sensations Real Sociedad and a 2-0 loss to Real Madrid in their last two games — way back when we still took life as we knew it for granted — the Catalans were never uncertain about claiming the points the rest of the way. In the 37th minute, Messi bravely got his head onto a bouncing ball in Mallorca’s box. It fell for Martin Braithwaite, who didn’t hesitate and smacked the ball home on the half-volley.
In the 79th minute, Messi pinged a quick ball over the top of the defense and into Alba’s path, who bore down on goal and scored simply.
And in injury time, Messi danced through the battered Mallorca defense and deposited the ball out of Manolo Reina’s reach.
For Mallorca’s part, it had no answer but for a pair of first-half flashes from Takefusa Kubo, the Japanese loanee from Real. He challenged Marc-Andre ter Stegen with a curler that just missed the target, and then a low rocket free kick, which zipped right at the German goalkeeper. In the second half, Ante Budimir had a look on a quick breakaway as well but couldn’t find the target
Oddly, given the length of the layoff, it was a vintage Messi performance, the kind of game he drifted in and out of, lulling his opponents into a false sense of safety, only to pounce viciously with a devastating run. Also, there were his goal and two assists.
And there’s a thrilling prospect obscured by all of the uncertainty, misery and collateral damage of the pandemic. Messi had been off for just one summer out of the last six, playing in the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and the 2015, 2016 and 2019 Copa Americas. Had it not been postponed a year, he’d have been playing in another Copa this summer as well. It felt inevitable that this onslaught of soccer, never giving him more than a few weeks of rest at a time, would trigger his decline and accelerate his aging as a soccer player.
Given the length of his career, the sheer number of games he has already played, his relative luck with injuries — all of those kicks he’s taken! — and a 33rd birthday looming on June 24, it’s remarkable that Messi hasn’t noticeably fallen off yet. He has, however, spent several of the last few seasons playing through niggling injuries and nursing reoccurring ailments.
This forced break gave Messi’s body more time to recover than he’s had since the summer he turned 26 years old. Perhaps that buys him more time on the backend of his career. Maybe that gifts us more Messi before we’re all left disoriented by his retirement.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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