My Golden Great – Lionel Messi, 2009

He had been threatening to do it for some time before, but 2009 was the year when Leo Messi truly conquered the world.

Several factors prevented Messi from winning the Ballon d'Or before he did – a lack of experience, a recurring thigh injury, several nights out on the town with Ronaldinho and Deco, but above all, a declining Barcelona side that had disappointed in the League and in Europe two seasons in a row and, most crucially, did not know how to get the best out of the Argentine.

All was to change in 2008-09. As Graham Hunter's book Barca: The Making of The Greatest Team in the World revealed, Barca’s hierarchy were aware that the key to bringing the glory days back to the Camp Nou was to base their entire team around Messi, and they drew up an action plan in summer 2008. This involved designing a special diet for the player, tightening relations with his father Jorge, selling close friends but ultimately bad influences Ronaldinho and Deco, and most important of them all, appointing Pep Guardiola as Coach.

Guardiola's influence on Messi going from one of the best players in the world to the undisputed best cannot be underestimated. The Catalan was aware of Messi's dalliances in Barcelona's nightlife, and one day confronted him on the issue, warning him he would never become as good as his idol, Diego Maradona if he continued to be so careless with his body. But Guardiola did not just play tough love with his player, and insisted, against the club’s wishes, allowed Messi to play in the Olympics in Beijing, which finished just before the League season started. Argentina won Gold, Messi won the first trophy he felt a part of – he played sporadically in 2005-06, when Barca won the League and Champions League – and the player was very grateful to Guardiola for giving him the chance.

'La Pulga' made a promising start to the calendar year of 2009, rescuing Guardiola's side with late winners away to Osasuna and Racing Santander, games in which they had trailed. But it was not just goals that Messi contributed to the side in this Ballon d’Or-winning 12 months – it is easy to forget Samuel Eto’o was the club’s top scorer that season – Messi’s movement, passing, and developed football brain were just as important to the team’s success.

One of his defining games was the 6-2 demolition of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu that all but sealed the League title. Madrid took an early lead through Gonzalo Higuain but Messi and Barca did not panic. A sublime chipped pass by Messi four minutes after Higuain’s goal set Thierry Henry free to equalise, and from then on Barca dominated the game, with Messi running the show and scoring the third and fifth goals. 

The Argentine was also at the heart of Barcelona's Champions League campaign, playing a key role in the thrashings of Lyon and Bayern Munich respectively on the way to the final with Manchester United in Rome, which was billed as the great showdown between him and Cristiano Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or.

By the end of the game there was no doubt about who was the best. While Ronaldo seemed intent on putting his stamp on the final, Messi focused on the collective effort, contributing to Barcelona's astonishing passing and ball retention which left United with no chance once Eto'o had scored the opener, before he then finished the game off with a fine headed goal, the one area he had been seen pre-match as weaker in comparison to Ronaldo.

Messi played so well that season that Barcelona were happy to let Samuel Eto'o join Inter Milan in the summer. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have been signed as the club’s record signing, but despite his €46m transfer fee, Guardiola continued to build the team around Messi, to the fury of the Swede. While Ibrahimovic flopped, Messi thrived, and went on to win the Pichichi as Barca won the League again. He picked up his first Ballon d'Or on December 1, 2009, beating Ronaldo, his nearest challenger, by a record 220 points.

But Messi was not done yet – he got the winner in extra time in the World Club Cup final against Estudiantes de Plata, converting a cross by Dani Alves with his chest, to round off a 2009 in which Barcelona won every competition they entered. Messi's influence was vital to each of these trophies, and no player was better suited to providing the finishing touch to this perfect season than the Argentine himself.

La Liga - Club News