MADRID (AP) - Free kick goals have become a habit for Lionel Messi.
He has three already this year, and is in position to establish himself as Barcelona’s best free-kick taker of all-time, needing only one more to surpass Ronald Koeman’s record with the Catalan club.
“Congratulations on scoring your 26th free kick goal,” the former Netherlands defender wrote on Twitter after Messi’s superb left-foot strike against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. “One to go to break another record.”
Messi’s three goals came in the first three matches of the year, and all were decisive.
His goal at Camp Nou on Wednesday secured a 3-1 victory that allowed Barcelona to reverse a 2-1 first-leg loss and advance to the Copa de Rey quarterfinals.
He saved Barcelona from a Spanish league loss with a spectacular 90th-minute strike at Villarreal on Sunday, and last week he kept the club alive with a second-half goal in the first leg at Athletic.
It was the first time Messi scored free kick goals in three consecutive matches. And all three came in different fashion.
It was a low drive that did the trick at Camp Nou on Wednesday, then a strike into the upper corner that wrong-footed the goalkeeper against Villarreal, and a curling shot over the wall that barely made it across the line in Bilbao.
While Koeman relied mostly on powerful strikes that overwhelmed goalkeepers, Messi has been using a variety of shots to get on the board from set pieces. He had been taking turns with Neymar and Ivan Rakitic on free kicks earlier in the season, but recently they have been solely Messi’s job.
This is the ninth straight season in which the 29-year-old Messi has scored at least one free kick goal. He had seven last season, the most so far in his career. His first ever came in a 6-1 rout against Atletico Madrid in 2008, a clever shot into an open net while the goalkeeper tried to set his wall.
Messi has scored 12 times in his last 11 matches, but none of his goals with Barcelona this season had come from free kicks. He did score a decisive set piece goal for Argentina last year, a remarkable strike against Colombia that put his nation back on track in World Cup qualifying.
Messi comes from a long line of free-kick specialists in Barcelona, including Diego Maradona and former Brazil great Rivaldo. He likely picked up some tips from Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho, who was Messi’s teammate early in the Argentine’s career.
Messi’s first’s chance to surpass Koeman’s mark will be in Barcelona’s home match against Las Palmas on Saturday in the Spanish league. Barcelona is third in the standings, one point behind Sevilla and five behind Real Madrid, which has a game in hand.
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