AP Sports Columnist
No team copes with as much day-to-day drama as Barcelona. Think of the Yankees during owner George Steinbrenner's salad days in New York, then multiply all that tabloid attention worldwide.
No matter how many games Barca wins, or titles it holds, each loss requires a full autopsy. Every run of bad play is turned upside-down and shaken until, like a snow globe, it looks as if the sky is falling.
No star shoulders a bigger burden, either, than Lionel Messi, the incomparable Argentine at the heart of what just might be the greatest soccer club ever. Three losses in Barcelona's last five games, including two at the hands of hated rival Real Madrid, had Barca fans wondering whether he and the team were in a funk or whether this was indeed the end of an era (again).
Barca's coach, Tito Vilanova, is undergoing treatment for a saliva gland tumor in New York, and Messi conceded the mood at the club was subdued. At a promotional appearance the night before Barcelona faced AC Milan in the Champions League, he told ESPN.com's Spanish correspondent, "I am not sad, although I am hurting. I do not like to lose out on important things, and neither does the team."
Messi is a sensitive sort, and when reminded about his so-so record against Italian teams in general, and how Milan closed down the space he had to operate in during the first leg of the home-and-home series, he responded, "Italian teams are very well-trained.
"I hope," he added, "Tuesday will be the day I can score my first goal against an Italian team from open play."
He did. Twice.
The first, a rocket into the top-left corner, came barely five minutes in; the second, a grass-cutter just inside the right post, came five minutes before halftime. Barcelona went on to win 4-0 and 4-2 on aggregate, advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals.
"For anyone who doubted Messi, today Messi gave a lesson on how to play football," said Barcelona assistant coach Jordi Roura, in charge during Vilanova's absence. "He is extraordinary, and surrounded by great players, he is capable of doing what he does."
One guy who understands that better than most is LeBron James, currently piloting the Miami Heat through one of most impressive winning streaks in pro basketball history himself. James is no stranger to soccer, either, having recently bought a small piece of England's Liverpool club and watched Messi on several occasions.
When Associated Press sports writer Tim Reynolds asked James about Messi, moments after the Heat put away the Atlanta Hawks for their 19th straight win, James said he was fascinated by how Messi was able to control the flow of the game on a surface some 30 times the length of a basketball court.
"I've never compared myself to him," James said, almost defensively, but then acknowledged he could see some parallels in the way both played.
"Absolutely," James continued, breaking into a smile and then chuckling. "He is awesome. He's totally awesome."
Both were hyped as teenagers, both proved to be better than their press, and both have garnered enough individual awards to stock side-by-side mansions. Messi has won more championships with his club, and while still only 25, many observers believe his career won't be complete unless he leads Argentina to a World Cup. James knows that drill only too well. The lack of an NBA championship on his resume was pointed out endlessly until he took care of that omission.
In the meantime, with the next World Cup still a year off, Messi mesmerizes like no other athlete on the planet. There was even a rumor making the rounds Tuesday afternoon that the cardinals in Rome trying to elect a pope conveniently called it a day a half-hour before the Barcelona-Milan game so they could catch the broadcast. If true, they were no doubt rooting for Milan, technically the home team. But if they were fans of the beautiful game, they couldn't help but be amazed yet one more time by Barcelona and Messi.
"So," Reynolds asked James at the end of their brief conversation, "he's the soccer version of LeBron?"
"Is he?" James demurred. "I'll let you decide."
If anything, it's the other way around.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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