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Jul 21, 2014

Is there a problem with Lionel Messi?

Lionel Messi has come under scrutiny during the past year but is perhaps the victim of his own high standards.

Lionel Messi's standing at Barcelona, Argentina and in football generally has been discussed fervently in wake of his fruitless attempt to win the World Cup.

The FIFA decision to award him with the Golden Ball award minutes after the defeat to Germany was quickly criticised by experts around the world who rushed to justify other names as the player of the tournament.

Next came the statistics and opinions that show that Messi did indeed have a great World Cup. Whether or not he deserved a pointless individual award he himself described as "of no interest" can be argued by those who care -- what matters now is which Messi will come back to Barcelona after that final defeat.

Just for the record, though, those stats showed Messi was the player who created the most chances and had the most successful dribbles, according to the experts at Opta. Together with his four goals and man of the match awards, it was not a bad tournament for someone so criticised.

Messi dragged Argentina out of the groups and was the only player they could turn to in a knockout stage in which they were only ever behind for the last seven minutes of the tournament, after Mario Gotze's goal.

- Cruyff: Suarez-Messi-Neymar may not work

After enjoying a much-needed rest, Messi is expected back in training for Barcelona on Aug. 5. By that time he should be fresh enough to dismiss the doubts over his physical fitness that blighted last season.

Despite all that happened in that trophyless season -- including spending a number of spells out through injury, and the death of one of his mentors in Tito Vilanova -- Messi did not have a bad season by anyone's other than his own massively high standards.

However, during the one crucial week in April when Barca crashed out of the Champions League to Atletico, lost an important league game at Granada and a Spanish Cup final to Gareth Bale's wonder goal, Messi looked lost and disinterested.

Messi carried the hopes of a nation on his shoulders but could not deliver the World Cup Argentina craved so much.

Questions were put to Tata Martino after the Atletico game about Messi's motivation, with the suspicion being he was keeping himself for Argentina and the World Cup, but Martino explained the lack of movement as a tactical decision to position him close to Atletico's goal.

In the meantime, Luis Enrique has arrived at Camp Nou with a mandate to change this Barca side. He will be trusted to radically overhaul a system that has been dominated by Xavi's metronome midfield play over more than 10 years.

With a need to fit both Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez into a system that can win games effectively, Enrique must look to reignite Messi. Perhaps the best way to do that is through a new role behind Neymar and Suarez, similar to that which he played for Argentina in Brazil.

With Gonzalo Higuain further ahead as a traditional No. 9, Messi had to introduce himself into Argentina's play further back, and it was not uncommon to see him picking the ball up on occasions in his own half.

This may explain why some observers feel his World Cup was nothing special; a lot of his work went mostly unseen in the centre of the pitch away from the opposition's penalty area.

Now in the new Barca, with Rakitic bursting forward to help Neymar and Suarez, Messi can sit in a deeper role with the added protection of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets behind him.

Messi has always been Barca's greatest provider of goals, even with Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the side. In the past six seasons he has given 79 assists, more than any other La Liga player. In that time in total he has created 111 goals for Barca, some way more than Xavi with 87, Dani Alves 74 and Iniesta 69.

Enrique indicated last week that he will look at different tactical setups to Barca's classic 4-3-3, so "the players open up to different options and have the capacity of surprising the rival."

The goals will be shared more than ever with Suarez signed up and Neymar looking for more of a role than he enjoyed in his first season. Enrique now has the opportunity to build a side around the creative skills of Messi and that may be the boost he needs to come back stronger than ever. From Aug. 5, a new chapter will begin for Messi and Barca.