It’s difficult to come up with new and joyous phrases in football, given how riddled with tired cliché the modern game is, but every now and again one crops up. The most recent – “Messi parks himself well” – did not come from either César Luis Menotti or Jorge Valdano, the most gifted I have ever met in this department, but José Luis Mendilibar, a laconic Basque rather than a loquacious Argentine. It was the perfect expression to describe what Messi is doing at the moment: he absents himself from the game, deposits himself in some area of the pitch and waits, and when he starts up the motor the move ends in either a goal or a shot against the post. He knows where to park to gain an advantage when he decides to return to the fray. The result is in the number of goals he is scoring.
It seems as though Messi is capable of adding another chapter to his personal guide to football brilliance at will. He is not a player who has ever morphed into his definitive version; he investigates football, he investigates himself and he adds new ideas and new facets to his game. He has had little contact with the ball in the opening five games of LaLiga, but he has scored nine goals and hit the woodwork I don’t know how many times. Because Cristiano Ronaldo is yet to get off the mark, due to his ban and his lack of accuracy against Betis, I am under the impression that we already know the identity of this season’s Pichichi, even if we are in September. How is Ronaldo going to make up nine goals? It’s like giving Lewis Hamilton a three-lap head start.
Messi’s scoring rhythm is Real Madrid’s main problem at the moment, with Zinedine Zidane’s side currently not hitting the target. All of a sudden, it’s become hard to score at the Bernabéu: 67 shots in three games for a return of three goals. I know there are those who think asking strikers to score goals reflects an unimaginative frame of mind, but as they can see, Messi is banging them in and nobody thinks any the less of him for doing so. With a goal from Karim Benzema against Valencia (he fluffed a handful of chances), one from Gareth Bale against Levante (he missed two clear openings) and one from Ronaldo against Betis, which isn’t that much to ask, Madrid would be just two points adrift of Barcelona. Three little goals that would be worth five points. But talking about goals on the day that Benzema signed a new contract would be uncourteous. Reminding him of Álvaro Morata would be even more so.