Sport Despite growing workload, Messi continues to deliver on biggest stage

06:25  15 march  2018
06:25  15 march  2018 Source:   thescore.com

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  Despite growing workload, Messi continues to deliver on biggest stage © David Ramos / Getty Images Sport / GettyLionel Messi doesn't need much introduction. He's one of the greatest players to ever grace a pitch, and an attraction who brings thousands of tourists to Barcelona each year. He's the soul of this great era at the Camp Nou, and always the envy of managers in the opposing dugout.

Asked why Chelsea lost to Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday, defender Marcos Alonso simply said, "They have Lionel Messi."

The diminutive Argentine has always featured prominently for the Catalan outfit - the sheen on his game never wore off - but this season has been different. Messi is creating from deeper positions, stretching defences out wide, and making a difference in the penalty area.

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He was clinical in the latest tie, scoring off three of his four shots against Chelsea to single-handedly swing the result in Barcelona's favour. But while the goals were important, Messi's assist to Ousmane Dembele captured the very best of his game. The 30-year-old won possession in midfield, eluded defenders as he roared downfield on the counter-attack, and then spotted the Frenchman with an incisive pass through the middle of the 18-yard box. He did all of this against his so-called bogey team, having been shut out in eight previous appearances against the Blues.

If not for Messi's contributions, Chelsea would've had a legitimate chance of advancing. The Blues pushed Barcelona as much as they could over two legs, and on Wednesday in particular, as the Blaugrana eschewed tradition by ceding swaths of possession to the visitor. The Camp Nou, a longtime theatre for tiki-taka, is now playing host to a more ruthless Barcelona side - one that's doing damage with fewer passes. Opponents are suffering fewer deaths by a million cuts, and instead more swift blows to the gut. And Messi is usually the one delivering them.

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He's had to take on a greater workload as a result of the change in tactics, and it's a burden he's content to carry. Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde's switch to a 4-4-2 formation made the team more compact, but it also liberated Messi. His touches on the ball have increased, sometimes ranging between 100 and 150 per match, which are the kind of gaudy numbers that midfield metronome Xavi used to register. Messi's taking on multiple jobs, running the midfield while preserving enough energy to join the attack. His pace is an underappreciated part of his repertoire, and it's helped him execute Valverde's orders.

The manager has achieved a happy medium here. It's difficult to preach a more defensive philosophy at a club like Barcelona, considering its illustrious history of attacking football, but he knew it could be done with Messi around. And the star has certainly kept audiences enthralled while Valverde prioritises fundamentals. All the talk Wednesday was about Messi's brilliance, not Barcelona's 29 clean sheets in 46 matches this season. If there's been any void left in attack, Messi has filled it.

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"This type of player, there is one born in every 50 years," Chelsea manger Antonio Conte said after Wednesday's match, according to The Telegraph. "We are talking about one single player with this capacity, with this ability, with these skills. He's fantastic. For sure, we are talking about a player who is able to move the final result for the team for whom he is playing."

Messi's had to anchor this team as if it's Argentina, doing all the leg work to keep the attack humming. The national team has long relied on Messi's match-winning abilities, and only reached the upcoming 2018 World Cup because of his timely hat-trick against Ecuador in the final round of qualifiers. It's the same now at Barcelona, which is asking Messi to be what he is: one of the greatest players of all time.

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