But, prior to Barca’s season-ending showdown with title rivals Atletico Madrid, it is Diego Costa and not Messi making the headlines, and not just for his own goal-scoring exploits.
After a season in which the Brazil-born Spain international has become the man of the moment, Costa – whose 27 Liga goals have lifted Atleti to the top of the standings with one match remaining – has been linked with a host of clubs, including Chelsea, who have ‘reportedly’ been agreeing a £32 million transfer for going on six months now.
While that ‘deal’ is far from ‘done’, it is certain that the 25-year-old is one of world football’s hottest properties this summer. A relatively late developer who didn’t establish himself in the Atletico starting XI until the age of 24, Costa’s bustling style and take-no-prisoners approach to leading the line is reminiscent of Didier Drogba. It is easy to see why Jose Mourinho is (allegedly) such a fan.
Costa isn’t counting his chickens though.
“People say a lot of stupid things,” he retorted when questioned about the claims that a move to Chelsea had already been agreed.
Indeed, finances aside, you have to wonder why he would leave an Atletico side which knocked the West London club out of the Champions League and is on the brink of a historic double. Certainly other managers have not got the best out of him in the past, so why risk forgoing the tutelage of Diego Simeone for a Mourinho who is notoriously fickle when it comes to his strikers?
Additionally, Costa’s style of play could land him in hot water in England. Not necessarily his aggression, which would go down a treat at the Bridge and is generally tolerated by referees in Britain.
Much like Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, Costa plays on the edge, physically and mentally; he regularly gets embroiled in spats with opponents, both physically and metaphorically as Spain team-mate Sergio Ramos will testify; he was also accused of racism by Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, who meted out his own justice with a stamp on the groin.
Such nonsense will not be tolerated in the Premier League. Chelsea fans may have backed their captain John Terry after the Anton Ferdinand affair, but the club were furious and will not accept similar indiscretions from a new signing. The FA has also set a precedent with Terry, Suarez and Nicolas Anelka.
Costa’s street-smarts should see him through, however. He is largely in control of what he does, and appears to know what he can and can’t get away with to gain a competitive edge.
He is a determined character, leaving his homeland at 16 after failing to progress beyond street football; when it became apparent that Spain would provide him with a job and a home, he turned his back on the Selecao and – to the anger of his former compatriots – will lead the line for his adopted nation as they defend their World Cup title in Brazil.
Costa does not give two hoots what anyone thinks as long as his career progresses accordingly. You could call that attitude mercenary, or you could call it single-minded professionalism.
Such has been the hype surrounding Costa’s exploits, you would be forgiven for thinking that Messi has been on an extended sabbatical.
Even he took to praising Costa and Atletico ahead of this weekend’s showdown, in this interview with Eurosport this week:
Barcelona have been poor by their high standards, and the Argentine hasn’t always hit the heights of previous season.
Some have intimated that he is unhappy, has lost his enjoyment of the game in the post-Guardiola era. Others have pointed out that he has picked up the injuries one would expect of a player so heavily relied on for club and country.
Yet Messi has scored 28 goals in 30 matches in La Liga this season – one more than Costa, in four fewer games. That is not his best return, but incredible by anyone’s standards.
What is also incredible that, having been completely out of it for several months, Barca’s destiny is in their own hands.
Real Madrid have been capitulating for fun, and Atletico – clear overachievers – have been struggling to juggle the big European games with the nitty gritty of domestic football in the latter stages of the season: immediately after stunning Chelsea 3-1 at Stamford Bridge to reach the Champions League final, they lost 2-0 at Levante and drew at home to Malaga, results which have given Barcelona more than a chance.
Messi’s form has also given Barca their opportunity: in their last 10 Liga matches, Costa has scored six, and Cristiano Ronaldo nine – Messi, meanwhile, has found the net a whopping 13 times. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and all that.
Because, after all that’s been said and done, a Barca win at home to Atleti gives the much-maligned Tata Martino the Liga title, making Simeone – and Costa – also-rans once more. And Messi a champion for the seventh time at the age of 26.
Reda Maher - on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport
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- Lionel Messi
- Diego Costa
- Atletico Madrid