Lionel Messi's game suffering along with decline of Barcelona

Martin Rogers
Real Madrid wins 19th Copa del Rey title
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Barcelona's Lionel Messi touches his shirt during the final of the Copa del Rey between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)

Life as Lionel Messi must be a little weird right now, and not just because of the inevitable sleep deprivation that comes with new fatherhood.

There is the odd trifecta of painful realities that his club Barcelona has not only been dumped out of the Champions League and is apparently doomed in the Spanish league title race, but also that reinforcements will not be arriving due to a transfer ban handed down for breaking international transfer rules.

Stranger still is the possibility the Argentine maestro might even leave the team that nurtured him since age 12. Catalan sports channel Esport3 claims that key figures within Barcelona's administration are open to cashing in on Messi by selling him to uber-rich Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City in the summer, a move that would bag the club as much as $250 million.

Soccer speculation is a sport in itself and a television report does not automatically equate to a transfer deed. Yet the mere fact that such a possibility could be mooted is a fresh development that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Weirdest of all for Messi – especially with this summer's World Cup looming ever closer – is that the 26-year-old may not belong among the top two positions if a current list of the finest players on the planet was to be drawn up.

If that statement has been uttered or written at any other time over the past seven years, it would justifiably have been greeted with cries of "nonsense." Messi diehards may pour similar scorn on this assertion.

However, in terms of pure productivity over the last few months, the most outstanding performers in soccer have both come from the club Barcelona hates more than any other – Real Madrid – in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Ronaldo has tussled with Messi for years for the right to be considered top dog in the soccer universe, but Bale's continued excellence has earned him a place among that kind of elite company, at least for now.

This is not a claim that Bale is a greater overall talent or will even come anywhere near Messi's place in history when all is said and done. But at this precise moment in time, he is a more powerful force than the Barca man.

Bale's countless electrifying performances have been a major contributor to Real's run to the Champions League semifinals, and the latest highlight reel moment came at Barca's expense in Wednesday's Copa del Rey final with an extraordinary field-length run and game-winning strike with six minutes left.

While Messi's dip in form this campaign, if only by his only previous incredible standards, has caused some alarm at Barca, it has had less of an effect in his native Argentina. Rather than being discouraged, many Argentine fans believe Messi may – subconsciously or otherwise – be keeping something in the tank in anticipation of the World Cup.

Messi has won won everything available at club level, but the one hole in his resume is that he has never performed to his full capability for his country. At the 2006 World Cup, he was still a little young and raw, and four years ago in South Africa he was powerless to stop a relentless German juggernaut from rolling to a 4-0 quarterfinal win.

If Messi's time to win a World Cup is to come, then surely it is this year. He will still only be 30 in 2018 but the amount of wear and tear he has built up since playing at the very top level from the age of 17 onward should not be discounted.

World Cups generally favor teams from the host's region. Of the four tournaments staged in South America, Uruguay has won twice with Brazil and Argentina claiming one each. Of the 10 World Cups staged in Europe, European teams have won nine, Brazil's 1958 triumph being the sole exception. The 2018 edition is in Russia.

Messi has a chance at immortality at his feet this summer and though his club displays have seen a decline this season it would take bravery, or foolishness, to write off his chances of stealing the show in June and July.

Perhaps of late he has still been shaking off the effects of the torn hamstring that kept him out for two months at the end of last year. Perhaps his baby son Thiago has been keeping him up at night. Perhaps he's just been saving himself for the summer.

The alternative, that we might have already seen the best that this soccer magician has to offer, is a far less pleasant thought.

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