MADRID — Lionel Messi has rarely been accused of failing to deliver in big games, having scored in two European Cup finals, but after subdued performances against AC Milan and Real Madrid, questions are being asked.
The four-time world player of the year and leading scorer in one of the greatest club teams of all time, was a shadow of his usual self at the San Siro in a Champions League last-16 first leg last week, when Barcelona lost 2-0.
The same happened again at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, when Cristiano Ronaldo, the player with whom he is always compared, scored twice in a 3-1 second-leg victory to guide Real into the King’s Cup final, 4-2 on aggregate.
Portugal’s Ronaldo has shaken off accusations that he goes missing when the going gets tough, and passed Messi’s record to become the first player to score in six straight Clasicos away from home.
"It is about the team, not about whether Messi is better or worse," Barcelona and Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta told a news conference on Wednesday, defending his team-mate.
"We have scored a lot of goals, and so has he in particular. It is just in these two key games we have lacked accuracy and composure. When the team doesn’t work well, it is everyone’s responsibility."
Messi, who plays almost every game, has resembled the forlorn figure he was with Argentina a couple of years ago when he was criticised for failing to perform on the international stage. He shrugged off suggestions on the weekend that he was tired, and told Barca TV: "I am used to playing a lot of games now, and I prefer it this way.
"I feel better if I don’t rest."
Barca and Messi can hardly be accused of decline, as they top La Liga with a 12-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, 16 points ahead of champions Real in third place.
Messi is La Liga’s top scorer with 38 goals, netting more goals himself than 16 other teams have individually tallied up in the 20-team league. However, he and his team have struggled when confronted with tightly organised defences of late.
They miss coach Tito Vilanova, who succeeded Pep Guardiola at the end of last season. He has been absent since the turn of the year after needing a second round of surgery following an operation to remove a tumour from his saliva glands in November 2011.
Although his assistant Jordi Roura is in constant contact, there is little doubt that Vilanova’s tactical knowledge has been missed in games at a time of the season when coaches really earn their money.
Barca have become too reliant on Messi’s goals, with fellow forwards Alexis Sanchez, David Villa and Pedro contributing only 12 between them in the league.
By successfully placing Messi in a straitjacket, Milan and Real have stifled Barca, crowding them out and cutting the supply lines from Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and Barca’s game plan has become too predictable.
A lack of movement up front has left them looking flat and short of ideas, while their leaky defence has now conceded in 12 consecutive matches.
Madrid’s crushing victory away to Barcelona to reach the King’s Cup final has fired out a warning to Manchester United ahead of their Champions League last-16 return at Old Trafford next week.
United manager Alex Ferguson was watching from the stands at the Nou Camp on Tuesday.
"We hope this will be a pivotal moment for us," Real captain Iker Casillas told reporters, when he surprisingly appeared to speak instead of coach Jose Mourinho.
"We are level at 1-1 (with United) and we have to try and score, and to keep a clean sheet. We need to do what we did here at Old Trafford," added Casillas, who is out of action recovering from hand surgery.