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Lionel Messi is the planet's best player again

Lionel Messi is the planet's best player again

Posted by Juan Gavasa on February 24, 2015

Lionel Messi revealed last week to Spanish newspaper AS that 2014 was a struggle for him. "The truth is that I wanted to start this year as well as possible," he said. "I knew it hadn't been a great year, where I had a lot of problems on and off the pitch."

His comments may sound slightly surprising considering he drove Argentina to the FIFA World Cup final, won the Golden Ball as the best player of Brazil 2014 and finished runner-up to Cristiano Ronaldo for the 2014 Ballon d'Or.

But this is Messi. Being second best does not fit within the narrative of the Argentine's career.

After winning four consecutive Ballon d'Or awards from 2009 to 2012, Messi appeared headed for the title of greatest player in the history of the sport. At the time, Ronaldo's arguments against Messi fell on deaf ears, but then something changed.

Whether the cause was on the field with injuries or off the pitch with personal problems, namely tax evasion charges, Messi often ambled through games looking tired or disinterested. His uncanny ability to cut through defenses and leave opposing players chasing shadows appeared far less frequently. Even at the 2014 World Cup, Messi snatched headlines but often looked off his pace and failed to score in the knockout rounds.

The problem, however, is that Messi can only be compared to himself to determine a drop in standards.

During the 2013-14 campaign, Messi knocked in 28 goals and tallied 11 assists in the domestic league. While those statistics sound impressive, Messi notched 46 goals and 12 assists in La Liga only a season earlier. In 2011-12, Messi scored 50 goals and provided the penultimate touch on another 15 goals. It's no coincidence that Messi's last Ballon d'Or came in 2012. For him, a 28-goal season a year ago was subpar.

To prove that the 27-year-old has returned to form, one need only look at Messi's statistics from the 2014-15 campaign. With 14 matches remaining in the Spanish league, Messi already has 26 goals and 13 assists. Twelve of the 20 teams in La Liga have scored 26 or fewer goals this season, so Messi's tally matches or beats 60 percent of the teams in La Liga. Add the Argentine's 13 assists and Messi's involvement in 39 league goals account for more goals than 14 of the 20 teams in the Spanish first division.

"It was a challenge to change the whole image I had projected last season. And to get it back what it was in previous years," Messi said. "That was my goal and that's how I wanted to start the season."

With Messi and Ronaldo claiming the past seven Ballon d'Or awards, which are handed to the best player in the world in a given year, the comparisons between Messi and Ronaldo are impossible to avoid. While Ronaldo has 29 goals this season, the Portuguese superstar has only knocked in four league goals since the start of 2015. In contrast, Messi has already notched 11 La Liga goals.

While 2014 clearly went to Ronaldo, 2015 appears to be setting up for Messi's year.

Beyond Spain, Messi appears locked in on returning to European glory. After recording eight goals in each of the past two Champions League campaigns, Messi has already finished eight chances in the group stages of the 2014-15 Champions League. If Barcelona can get past Manchester City and make a deep run in Europe, Messi may well challenge his 2011-12 personal record of 14 European goals (Ronaldo broke Messi's single-season record during the 2013-14 campaign with 17 goals).

In a team sport, individual success is either enhanced or undermined based on team success. Messi's return to the top will largely be predicated on overcoming the four-point gap with Real Madrid in the domestic league and returning to continental glory in the Champions League.

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