Decline? Messi’s divine nearly-assist showed he was just hibernating

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Lionel Messi of PSG celebrates his goal against Lille on February 6, 2022 at Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve-d'Ascq near Lille, France.

When animals climb into a little hovel under the ground to hibernate for the winter, most of us probably assume they are merely going for a really long kip.

But hibernation is not sleep. Not exactly. In fact, animals sometimes even come out of hibernation to go to get 40 winks, such is the difference between the two states.

Hibernation, rather than a hugely extended nap, is more akin to short-term cryogenic freezing. An animal’s metabolism grounds almost to a halt: its breathing slows, its heartbeat decelerates to an unhurried thud, its body temperature drops, sometimes to just a few degrees above zero.

It is alive and awake, but only just, conserving as much energy as possible during the barren winter months when food is scarce and life tough.

It strikes us as very sensible. It also brings us to the animal kingdom’s most feared predator: Lionel Messi.

Messi’s story is not one that needs recounting in detail here, suffice only to say the most recent chapter has not been quite as gripping as most expected.

Since his summer migration from the warm southern climes of Catalunya to the less hospitable Parisian plains, Messi’s carnivorous instincts have been blunted.

By late January, he had scored just one Ligue 1 goal for Paris Saint-Germain. He was underperforming his expected goals drastically, the sign of a man low on confidence. Two hundred and forty-seven players across Europe’s top five leagues had more combined goals and assists than him at the end of the year’s first month.

Messi had gone from the king of the jungle to another scavenger rooting around on the forest floor, entering into the inevitable decline that comes with age.

Or at least that’s what was being read into his less-than-reverberant performances.

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Leo Messi of Paris Saint-Germain in action against Stade de Reims at Parc des Princes, on January 23, 2022 in Paris, France.

READ: 10 sad stats from Lionel Messi’s difficult debut season with PSG

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After an underwhelming outing against Nice in December, a L’Equipe report said the little Argentine was giving “the impression that he always plays at the same slow pace and, on occasions, [he] seems disconnected.”

To which all we can say is: what a difference a month (and a bit) makes. On Sunday, as PSG took on Lille – the reigning French champions, the team that squeezed the life from them in the Trophee des Champions back in August – Messi was present, correct, and seemed very connected indeed.

PSG took the lead early, through a messy effort rather than a Messi effort. Lille goalkeeper Ivo Grbic spilt a Nuno Mendes cross and Danilo Pereira poked home.

But Lille replied. Ex-PSG man Hatem Ben Arfa got the ball on the right and did what he’s always done best, jinking past three to set up Sven Botman.

At which point, the bear had been poked, Messi visibly thinking, ‘There’s only one outrageously talented left-footed attacker who’s going to win this football match.’

It was on. Four minutes after Ben Arfa’s magical dribble, Messi whipped a delicious corner to the back stick for Presnel Kimpebe to get his first-ever league goal.

Then, six minutes later, Messi’s second goal of the Ligue 1 campaign – and in true Messi style. A wayward Kylian Mbappe dribble ended with the ball at Messi’s feet 18 yards from goal, Messi gratefully skipped into the box and delightfully dinked the ball past Grbic.

Before the break, the former Barcelona forward nearly made it four for PSG and two for himself, a curling, dipping free-kick thundering off the bar. It was a 17-minute spell of Messi back to his most mesmerisingly barbaric.

Leave the direct goal threat aside for a second though. When Messi is at his best, he is not just a goal machine but an all-field imp, a devilish fairy flitting across the park creating havoc with nonchalant flicks of his wand.

In the second half, he showed he was back at that too, which will perhaps make PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino even happier than the goal and assist.

Messi played a part in PSG’s fifth, which Mbappe finished with grace and panache. But it was a Messi nearly-assist that most sharply grabbed the attention.

As the second half wore on and space opened up, Messi picked the ball up ten yards inside the Lille half, nipped away from Benjamin Andre and, with the outside of his boot, played a perfectly weighted ball into the path of Mbappe.

Unfortunately for PSG, Mbappe’s second touch was heavy, taking him wide and making the angle too narrow for him to score. But in that moment of simple, precise creative genius, Messi had shown that he is well and truly back at it.

Decline? No, he was just hibernating. Alive and awake, but only just, conserving as much energy as possible during the barren winter months.

After the match, Pochettino was emphatic in his assessment: “I had no doubts, Leo is the best player in the world.” And the best had just turned the heat back up.

Football’s winter does not coincide exactly with the meteorological winter of the northern hemisphere. It comes between August and January when trophies are scarce and life tough. Messi’s nemesis-turned-team-mate Sergio Ramos knows this only too well.

With nothing to win in those five months, Messi was waiting for the green shoots of spring to appear – in footballing terms, when the Champions League knockout stages start.

Now, football’s spring has arrived; next week, PSG take on Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Messi didn’t go to Paris to stat pad in Ligue 1. His numerical mattress is plenty comfortable already. He is in Paris for one last chance to feast on European silverware. That chance is coming into view and his hibernation appears to be coming to an end.

Having not eaten all winter, animals come out of hibernation ravenous.

If the king of the jungle is hungry again, Real Madrid should be worried.

By Joshua Law


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