Lionel Messi criticism without foundation - Barcelona's Mascherano
Barcelona star Javier Mascherano has dismissed the idea that his teammate Lionel Messi has gone off-form just as the season is coming to its decisive moments.
Last month, Messi moved to 499 career goals (449 for Barca) when scoring for Argentina against Bolivia in their World Cup 2018 qualifier, but he has not since found the back of the net.
The Blaugrana No. 10's last club goal came in the 88th minute of the 3-1 Champions League win over Arsenal on March 16 -- meaning he has been held scoreless as Barca have taken one point from three La Liga games against Villarreal, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad and allowed chasers Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid back into the title race.
Adding in his blank in the 2-1 Champions League quarterfinal first-leg win over Atletico Madrid, Messi has gone 362 minutes without a Barca goal, his longest barren run at club level in almost five years.
Speaking ahead of the return game at Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon on Wednesday evening, Messi's international teammate Mascherano said it was difficult to even talk about the idea of Messi having something to prove.
"[Messi] has shown many times who he is," Mascherano said. "It makes me uncomfortable to be always talking about him. It is always the same stuff. There's nothing really more to say."
Among the analysis of Messi's recent games has been some criticism for him leaving the right wing and playing too centrally, making it easier for opponents to crowd him out in midfield traffic.
Asked about this at the Atletico pregame news conference, Colchoneros captain Gabi said there was no special plan to stop Messi, but he and his teammates would work together at the task.
"It is difficult to prepare to play against Messi, I just prepare to play against Barcelona," the midfielder said. "With help we can stop him, although we know it will be difficult. We will see what position he begins the game at the Calderon."
Messi did not speak to the media before Wednesday's game, but did send a message via Facebook.
"Our mindset remains the same," the message said. "We work hard all year to have a chance of winning trophies at the end of the season. We continue to believe in ourselves."
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan