Lionel Messi reaching new heights following Neymar departure

Lionel Messi continues to surprise us all with his magic. Just when we though La Pulga could not possibly get any better (with senseless haters from the Spanish media even suggesting his decline was imminent before La Liga started!), there he goes again: Scoring seven goals in his last four matches, hitting the woodwork a surprising five times and, more importantly, guiding Barca to an unbeaten record and to the very top of the table both in the domestic league and the Champions League final.

While Messi is deservedly grabbing the headlines of pretty much every non-heavily-biased sports newspaper or website on the planet, Cules should not forget the fact that his early-season explosion has been enabled by newly-appointed Ernesto Valverde. Sure, Messi would be able to excel under virtually any coach, but the way in which the former Athletic Bilbao manager has succeeded in empowering his teammates should certainly not be overlooked.

Under Valverde, Barcelona have become a much more cohesive unit as a result of an increased focus on purposeful passing, high pressing, increased defensive intensity and a more decisive effort to transition from attacking to defensive mechanisms as quickly as possible. Although many feared that Neymar's departure would doom Barca to a period of obscurity, the team has actually stepped up in his absence and actually feel like a more confident, hungry team without him.

As we explained in much more detail in Episode 33 of The Barcelona Podcast, Barca's obvious improvement should be celebrated and credit given when it's due to those who truly deserve it. Check it out now: