Decline? Messi’s near divine assistance showed he was hibernating


When animals climb into a little dump underground to hibernate for the winter, most of us probably assume they’re just going to take a really long kip.

But hibernation is not sleep. Not exactly. In fact, animals sometimes even come out of hibernation to fetch 40 winks, such is the difference between the two states.

Hibernation, rather than an extremely prolonged nap, is more like short-term cryogenic freezing. An animal’s metabolism almost stops: its breathing slows, its heart rate decelerates to a dull sound, its body temperature drops, sometimes to a few degrees above zero.

He is alive and awake, but only barely, conserving as much energy as possible during the barren winter months when food is scarce and life is hard.

It makes a lot of sense to us. This also brings us to the most feared predator in the animal kingdom: Lionel Messi.

Messi’s story isn’t one that needs to be told in detail here, suffice it to say that the most recent chapter hasn’t been as engrossing as expected.

Since his summer migration from the hot southern climes of Catalonia to the less hospitable plains of Paris, Messi’s carnivorous instincts have been blunted.

At the end of January, he had scored just one goal in Ligue 1 for Paris Saint-Germain. He was significantly underperforming his expected goals, a sign of a man lacking in confidence. Two hundred and forty-seven players from Europe’s top five leagues had more goals and assists than him at the end of the first month of the year.

Messi had gone from king of the jungle to another scavenger scavenging the forest floor, entering the inevitable decline that comes with age.

Or at least that’s what read in his less than reverberating performances.

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READ: 10 sad stats from Lionel Messi’s difficult first season with PSG

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After a disappointing outing against Nice in December, a report from L’Equipe said the little Argentine gave “the impression that he always plays at the same slow pace and, on occasion, [he] seems disconnected.

To which all we can say is: what a difference a month (and a little) makes. On Sunday, as PSG took on Lille – the reigning French champions, the side that snatched their lives in the Trophée des Champions in August – Messi was present, correct and indeed seemed very connected.

PSG took the lead early, thanks to a messy effort rather than an effort from Messi. Lille keeper Ivo Grbic knocked down a Nuno Mendes cross and Danilo Pereira pushed home.

But Lille responded. Former PSG player Hatem Ben Arfa collected the ball on the right and did what he’s always done best, passing three quarters to set up Sven Botman.

By then the bear had been pushed, with Messi visibly thinking: “There is only one outrageously talented left-footed striker who is going to win this game of football.”

It was on. Four minutes after Ben Arfa’s magical dribble, Messi struck a delicious corner on the backstick for Presnel Kimpebe to secure his first-ever league goal.

Then, six minutes later, Messi’s second goal of the Ligue 1 campaign – and in true Messi style. A wayward Kylian Mbappe dribble ended with the ball at Messi’s feet 18 yards from goal, Messi gratefully leapt into the box and deliciously dinked the ball past Grbic.

Before the break, the former Barcelona striker came close to making four for PSG and two for himself, a curling, plunging free kick thundering over the bar. It was a 17-minute spell of Messi back at his most fascinating barbarism.

Leave the direct goal threat aside for a second though. When Messi is at his best, he’s not just a goalscoring machine, but an all-court imp, an evil fairy flitting through the park, creating havoc with nonchalant wands.

In the second half, he showed he was back there too, which will perhaps make PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino even happier than the goal and the assist.

Messi was instrumental in PSG’s fifth, which Mbappe finished with grace and panache. But it was a near-assist from Messi that caught the most attention.

As the second half wore on and space opened up, Messi picked up the ball ten yards inside the Lille half, pulled away from Benjamin Andre and, with the outside of his boot, played a perfectly weighted ball in the way of Mbappe.

Unfortunately for PSG, Mbappe’s second touch was heavy, taking him wide and making the angle too narrow for him to score. But in that moment of simple, precise creative genius, Messi had shown he was well and truly back.

Decline? No, he was just hibernating.

After the match, Pochettino was adamant in his assessment: “I had no doubts, Leo is the best player in the world.” And the best had just turned up the temperature.

The football winter does not coincide exactly with the meteorological winter of the northern hemisphere. It takes place between August and January, when trophies are scarce and life is tough. Sergio Ramos, Messi’s nemesis turned teammate, knows this all too well.

With nothing to gain in those five months, Messi was saving his energy for when the green shoots of spring began to appear – in footballing terms, for the start of the Champions League Round of 16.

Now the spring of football has arrived; next week, PSG will face Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Messi did not go to Paris for a stat pad in Ligue 1. His digital mattress is already very comfortable. He’s in Paris for one last chance to feast on European silverware. This chance presents itself and its hibernation seems to be coming to an end.

Having not eaten all winter, the animals come out of hibernation voracious.

If the King of the Jungle is still hungry, Real Madrid should be worried.

By Joshua Law

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