It’s a neat little trick which reflects on the brilliant football mind of Lionel Messi that, apart from his world-beating skills on the pitch, further separates him from any, and all other players, in the highest echelons. In just the twinkling of an instant, Messi has achieved the amazing near-magical feat of re-inventing Antoine Griezmann by simply opening the door to the previously “closed” society he enjoyed in exclusivity with only the most trusted football compadres like Neymar and Luis Suarez. With immediate effect, the wizard had turned the struggling, hapless French World Cup winner into an instantly productive Barcelona striker not unlike others which the Argentine star has previously produced to great effect.
Griezmann’s sudden overnight change of position from forlornly lost, frustrated and mismanaged straggling on the wing has resulted in two consecutive performances wherein he’s shown the wherewithal, wit and inventiveness to score, assist and perform all around like the top-class forward he is again. And Messi is the quintessential architect who re-engineered this amazing transformation.
Regardless of whoever you’re rooting for, you’d have to be blind not to gaze in outright admiration for the instinctive Messi backheel which Griezmann softly lob-wedged neatly over Villareal’s Sergio Asenso for Barcelona’s third goal at the weekend. It was unquestionably one of the most beautiful goals of the 29-year-old forward’s career.
It was also Griezmann’s aggressive movement in the six-yard box that had already helped cause Pau Torres’ own goal which gave Quique Setien’s team, desperate not to lose more ground on Madrid, a 1-0 lead. After having looked sprightly and insistent against a previous Espanyol side bristling with defensive gristle, came an even bigger breakthrough. A quick jaunt into the box? After all, Griezmann’s always done that better than most. But the main significance and difference, this time, is that he’s not deliberately passed over but given the ball.
Time for some reflection and candor here. It’s open knowledge that Jordi Alba, or anyone else on the same team for that matter, loves to link with Messi. Only Suarez, in recent seasons, plays incredibly well with, and instinctively understands, the Argentine better than Alba. It often appears as if the galavanting wing-back has often, consciously or otherwise, treated Griezmann as something of a hindrance, that should he pass the ball to Griemann, there’s the reservation that Messi may ultimately receive the ball from the French forward a second or two too late.
Yet his time around, Alba recognised and accepted Griezmann’s change of status – the man’s been given the tacit nod of acceptance and the green light of approval from both Suarez and, most importantly, Lionel Messi. Against Espanyol, the only goal of resulting 1-0 win came because that little darting run which the Frenchman makes is instantly, instinctively fed by Alba with a nicely weighted, perfectly timed dink into Griezmann’s path.
In the split second that Griezmann, who had unashamedly admitted that he came to Barcelona to “learn a new playing system” and to “challenge myself,” backheels the ball with the possible most likely intention that he’s aiming for Suarez, as the Uruguayan is nearer the space into which Griezmann cleverly clips the ball with his back turned. But the stealthy stalker Messi is already quickly closing right in like a cheetah about to pounce on his prey, quicker than Suarez and it’s his shot that Griezmann sets up. Griezmann just sensed it was Messi he was backheeling the pass to although Suarez was nearer behind him.
Even though the fact that Suarez actually scored is, for the observer and for Griezmann, the subtle nuance of that little vignette – it was vitally significant that Griezmann played with one indelible touch and, secondly, that he and Messi were locked in a joyous embrace after the ball found the back of the net. It matters not now that some weren’t quite sure how Messi and his new French buddy were actually getting along. Griezmann probably wasn’t sure either but to reciprocate a backheel scoring opportunity barely three days after Messi did him the identical footballing favour patently made Griezmann believe that he was, now, officially ‘one of the gang’.
It’s also noteworthy that it was none other than Griezmann at the weekend who lays the ball off for Messi, before the Barca genius draws away the scrambling Villarreal defence and heels the ball into his French teammate’s path for that perfect Phil Mickelsen lob over a paralysed Asenjo. But it’s worth noting because Griezmann does so with just one single, exquisite touch. Not only is he finally being initiated into the fabled Barca way but he’s also stepping up with the confidence and poise to play delicate one-touch football with none other than Messi. An important breakthrough for him, and most definitely for Barcelona who have long been in dire need of such an ally for Messi with the clock fast running out of time for the likes of Suarez.
Curiously though, it wasn’t Setien who had suggested to Griezmann that he move off the left wing and played, as a tight partnership with Suarez, with Messi behind them. No, that would be all Messi who knew only too well who would best complement him on the pitch, being the talisman and lynchpin of the team with 2 decades of unmistakable Blaugrana DNA coursing through his veins.
For those who’ve been gullible enough to believe in the quizzical rumors about Messi being the master puppeteer ‘running’ the club behind the scenes with Machiavellian machinations – rumors which he’s been of late sick and tired of hearing and have had to finally speak out against in defiance and anger – this sudden denouement in the supposed ‘estranged and awkward’ relationship between the Argentine and the French forward must certainly look like concrete proof that the rumor-mongers were right. On the contrary, Messi isn’t some malevolent, scheming behind-the-scenes spectre. Not at all in the least. The openly acknowledged gigantic asset that he undoubtedly is, Messi is for sure someone around whom everyone else may well have to walk on tiptoes, especially those who have their own hidden agenda. He deserves, and gets, firm consideration in all matters which on the rare occasions may either hinder, or spur on, his performances and those of his loyal, respectful teammates around him. And increase the likelihood of winning big trophies.
No, for a fact, Lionel Messi is most certainly not the master manipulator but the brilliant mastermind who knows the strengths and the flaws of Barcelona, both the team and the club, inside out. And Antoine Griezmann is the latest living testament to this.