All eyes were on Lionel Messi. Had he really lost his passion for football? Barcelona's former assistant coach Angel Cappa had said so earlier this week following the Argentine's patchy performance in the 3-2 defeat to Valencia last weekend. But on a wet and windy night in Seville, Messi proved his enthusiasm for the game remains very much intact.
Things didn't start well. Messi dropped deep into midfield to look for the ball as Barcelona enjoyed the early possession but looked unlikely to do much with it.
And then Sevilla scored. Barca's defending was all at sea and, although Alberto Moreno's strike took a fortunate deflection to beat Victor Valdes, Ivan Rakitic had been allowed time and space to race into the area. Things then almost got worse for the visitors as Sevilla struck the post before Unai Emery's men wasted a wonderful opportunity on the counterattack, with Rakitic firing wide. After half an hour, Barca could have been three behind.
Meanwhile, Messi remained a peripheral figure. That soon changed, however, as he curled a delightful free kick into the path of Alexis Sanchez for the Chilean to head home - albeit from an offside position - to level the scores. Moments can change games and that looked like a significant one. Afterwards, Sevilla was never quite the same, while Barca - and Messi - grew in stature.
On the sidelines, Emery was furious. The Sevilla coach had seen a replay of Barca's first goal and told the assistant in no uncertain terms what he thought of the officiating.
But to no avail. Emery was probably fearing the worst when he heard Cappa tell Catalan radio this week that Messi had lost his passion for the game. And 11 minutes into the second half, those fears were confirmed as the Argentine arched another sublime strike in off the post to make it 3-1. Two shots, two goals, an assist and a penalty appeal mistakenly turned down later on. It hardly looked like Messi had lost his passion at all.
"I would never risk speaking ill of Messi," Gerardo Martino said afterwards. "Unconsciously, people who talk about him are in fact playing with his pride, and if you touch the pride of the best player in the world... the rival pays for that, and that's what happened today."
|THE THREE-WAY FIGHT FOR LA LIGA
The club's sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta also offered his opinion after the game, which finished 4-1 thanks to a lovely fourth scored by substitute Cesc Fabregas. "The problem with football is that we are always writing a thesis - after every minute," the former Barca goalkeeper said. "But those of us who see Messi in training know that he hasn't lost his hunger."
Messi's two goals on Sunday night were his first from open play in La Liga since late September at Almeria, when he netted a superb strike from long range but was soon substituted with an injury. The Argentine's double in Seville also saw him move ahead of rival Cristiano Ronaldo for goals in 2014. Leo now has seven in the current calendar year, while the Real Madrid man is still on five.
The Portuguese has just started a three-match suspension following his dismissal and inappropriate gesture to the match officials at Athletic Bilbao last weekend and in his absence, Messi made his point.
Back among the goals and back on top in the three-way fight for La Liga, Leo looks as passionate as ever.
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