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After an early goal gave Barcelona the lead in Saturday's Champions League final, Juventus equalized in the second half. That's when a familiar figure stepped forward to break the deadlock.
Lionel Messi capped off an incredible year-long stretch with a gliding run that forced a block from Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The giant Italian parried Messi’s shot, but Luis Suarez stepped up to knock home the match-winning goal in a 3-1 victory that crowned Barca the new European champion and completed its treble with a third major trophy to go with the club's La Liga and Copa del Rey titles.
Ultimately, Neymar would score a third goal with the last kick of the game, but Barcelona's historic season belonged to Messi. For the past 12 months, the world revolved around Barcelona’s miniature maestro. From the tired figure who struggled to complete 120 minutes at the 2014 World Cup final to the difference maker in the 2015 Champions League final, Messi looked like a player reborn.
At the World Cup in Brazil, Messi performed witchcraft to help Argentina advance to the knockout stages. With the aid of club and country teammate Javier Mascherano, La Albiceleste managed to advance to the championship round in Rio de Janeiro.
A goal in the World Cup final against Germany would have earned Messi the top trophy in the sport and allowed him to escape the lingering blue and white shadow of Diego Maradona. But he did not have the patented magical moment that regularly leaves fans around the globe speaking in tongues. Tax evasion charges helped explain why Messi dropped his level from the best player on the planet to possibly second or third best.
For this special player, that decline seemed unacceptable.
In truth, Mascherano largely dragged a hobbled Argentina side just shy of the finish line 11 months ago. By the end of the World Cup, Messi did not look like the energetic little flea that moves too quickly to be caught. Despite earning the Golden Ball in Brazil, he looked like an artist that had lost his inspiration. He could still paint beautiful paintings because of his talent and expertise, but he could not deliver the magical masterpieces that made him Messi.
But when Barcelona’s season began in August, he regained his focus. Even before the mini-crisis involving Messi and manager Luis Enrique, the 27-year-old returned to the form that helped guide Barcelona to its first treble back in 2008-09. The narrative of a rebirth to start 2015 sounded nice on paper, but the reality was that Messi scored 23 times in his first 22 games for Barcelona in the 2014-15 campaign. He also had nine assists before the calendar flipped to 2015.
With Suarez serving his suspension for his World Cup bite, Messi and Neymar formed an attacking combination capable of unlocking just about every defense in Spain and Europe. The duo sparkled and thrived. After missing the season opener, Neymar had 10 goals in his first 10 games. In starting all 11 games, Messi managed nine goals and nine assists. Without Suarez, Barcelona – which had nine wins, one draw and only one loss – looked on the verge of forming the best attacking duo in Europe.
Only the architects designed Barcelona to be the best attacking trio in football. And by the final whistle of Saturday's Champions League final, Messi, Suarez and Neymar had done just that. The “MSN” partnership tallied 122 goals, which set a new record for the most goals by a front three. That record becomes even more impressive when considering Suarez did not play until October. Also, the Uruguayan stared slowly, but the team stuck with Suarez when his Barcelona career featured no goals in his first seven La Liga games. The best ingredients had been obtained, but they required time to marinate.
The new year began with a 1-0 loss away to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad, adding further pressure on Enrique, who gambled on using Messi and Neymar as substitutes in that defeat after the winter break. However, a second half of the season remained, and Enrique and Messi reconciled differences off the pitch in order to achieve greatness on it. The best player in the sport would never be used as a substitute again.
Incredible as he had been in the early part of the season, Messi raised his game another level in 2015. After the defeat to Sociedad, Barcelona won 10 matches in a row with the Argentine scoring 14 goals, two hat tricks and nine assists. The streak would end at 10 matches, though, after an odd 1-0 home defeat to Malaga in February. Barcelona never lost again – save for a 3-2 “defeat” to Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal, where Barcelona still advanced.
Over the final 23 Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey matches, Messi would tally 21 goals and eight assists, and Barcelona would win 20 of 23 games. In all, Barcelona won 50 of 60 matches across all competitions.
While the Copa del Rey final solo goal and the Jerome Boateng ankle-breaker stand out as memorable moments, the truth is that Messi stood out all season long. He stepped up every time Barcelona needed him, and he came up big on the biggest stage. In Berlin, he again managed to make the play that won the match. He may not have earned an assist or even administered the final touch, but he won the game.
What a difference 12 months made for Lionel Messi.