BARCELONA (Reuters) - 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 magician shrugged off Neymar’s exit, as well as a slump in form for strike partner Luis Suarez, took on the extra responsibility himself and fired the club to the title, fittingly scoring a hat-trick in their 4-2 win at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday which clinched their league triumph.
The season had begun under gloomy skies. Two resounding defeats to then league and European champions Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in August indicated Barca would not enjoy life after Neymar, especially when his replacement Ousmane Dembele suffered a serious injury.
It is to Messi’s credit that Barca 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 Suarez for the previous three seasons, compensating for Suarez’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 Barca won their opening seven games to race seven points clear at the top of the league.
Messi remained the architect of Barca’s unstoppable run to the title throughout the season, breaking the deadlock in a 2-0 win at stubborn 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 strikes 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 five leagues.
Messi regained his prolific partnership with Suarez 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 Atletico Madrid at arm’s length.
Atletico had the chance to cut Barca’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.
“NO-ONE LIKE 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 coach Diego Simeone claimed that if Messi had been wearing an Atletico shirt instead of a Barca one then his side would have won the game.
Barca 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.
Who could blame Valverde for not contemplating the thought of losing a player who almost single-handedly fired Barca to a title success that few predicted after Neymar had left them in the lurch.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar