AFTER Lionel Messi broke Gerd Muller’s goalscoring record on Sunday night, Neil Cameron looks at why the diminutive Argentinian is rightly viewed as one of the greatest ever players.
LIONEL Messi, contrary to popular opinion, does have bad days at the office just like everyone else.
His one and only nightmare performance of 2012 happened not too far from here, when Barcelona were in Glasgow last month on Champions League business and lost 2-1 to Celtic.
Messi, by his own standards, was poor on the night.
All he did, and this must keep him awake at night, was complete seven successful dribbles, rattle the crossbar with a shot from outside the box and force Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster to produce two of the best saves of his life – oh, and he also scored a goal.
One of the record-breaking 86 he’s now managed in a calendar year.
For some professional footballers, a performance such as that one is the highlight of their season.
At his worst, Messi is still better than just about everyone else.
But then Messi is not just a footballer. In actual fact, has anyone checked that the little genius from Argentina is actually human?
“The man is supernatural.” That was Barcelona defender Gerard Pique’s summing up of his team-mate whose double in a 2-1 Prima Liga win over Real Betis on Sunday saw him equal and then beat the record set by Gerd Muller in 1972, who only managed a measly 82 goals in that 12 month period.
“Leo has no limits and we always have to remember everything that he’s given us. We have to enjoy him every single minute that we have him now,” said Pique.
He has a point. Forget the tedious debate about whether Messi is the best player of all time (which for my money he is, but the matter is subjective) and let’s simply enjoy the fact we live in the era of the man from Rosario.
Messi got his record within 35 minutes of Sunday’s game at the Nou Camp.
His first goal was a trademark individual run, ghosting past two defenders who got nowhere near him, and which finished with an accurate left-foot shot into the bottom corner of the net, his preferred destination for a football.
Number 86 arrived when Andres Iniesta back-heeled a pass to Messi, who from an angle and through sheer instinct sent an unstoppable first-time shot into the same corner. It looked easy because he makes it so.
The Nou Camp rose as one to hail their hero, who seemed a bit embarrassed by it all. Every outfield player rushed to congratulate the Argentinian, but he didn’t milk the moment – rather he ran back into his own half as quickly as he could so the game could continue. Messi modestly said: “I always say the same, it’s nice for what it means but the victory is more important as it maintains our lead over the other teams.”
It is this refreshing attitude that makes him the most loved footballer on he planet. Brilliant, but not boastful.
There are a few in the English Premier League who would do well to take a leaf out of his book.
However, nobody can come close to him in term of ability.
As well as passing Muller, Messi’s double against Betis sent him clear of Cesar Rodriguez as Barca’s all-time leading league goalscorer after they had been level on 192 before the match.
From the 86 have come six hat-tricks, 20 doubles and four goals in the same game on two occasions. It is staggering stuff. Earlier this year Messi became Barca’s record scorer after moving past the tally of 232 official goals set by Rodriguez during the 1940s and 50s. He now has 283 from 352 games.
Given that footballers tend to hit their peak between the ages of 25 and 30, then it could well be the case that the best of Messi (just 25) is still to come. What a frightening thought. In the 2008-09 season, he scored 38 goals. Since then his season’s figures have gone 47, 53, 73 for last season and he’s managed 30 in this campaign before Santa has started his shift.
Muller, the man whose record he overhauled, was the ultimate poacher. Almost all his goals came from inside the penalty box. Messi can score from everywhere, is the best dribbler around and he sets up chances for others.
For someone so small he can also head the ball well, as he did in 2009 in the Champions League final win over Manchester United.
As Gary Neville said of that goal: “He leapt like Michael Jordan and headed like Joe Jordan.”
When given even half a sight of goal, Messi scores. His finishing is better than even Muller, who scored his 85 goals from 60 matches with Bayern Munich and West Germany.
Pele, who is third on the list, struck 75 times in 53 games.
For those who do like to debate who is the greatest, then it must be pointed out that both players operated in a time when high-scoring games were the norm.
Nobody is close to Messi’s figure anywhere in the world. Also, defenders 40 years ago tended to be the biggest and slowest players on the pitch, not the supreme athletes of today that Messi has to contend with, although there is far more protection for attacking players today compared to a time when brutal defending was all but legal.
Messi is the clear favourite to secure a fourth successive world player award when the winner is announced next month, and he is not finished quite yet for 2012.
Barcelona still have two league games and one King’s Cup tie to go.
He could quite easily get another five of six before the turn of the year.
“Messi deserves to supersede me,” Muller told Gazzetta dello Sport.
“With the defences as they are (in modern times), people would score more.”
That meant Der Bomber felt he would have scored a lot more if he had been playing these days.
Barca sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, is of the opinion that Messi will be long retired before the football world truly appreciated his achievements.
He said: “I’m sure that we will really appreciate Leo’s records over time. They happen so quickly that they seem to be just one more thing. It all seems very simple but it’s very difficult to describe it.”
Zubizarreta is quite right. Putting Messi into words is difficult, so best just to sit back and watch a master at work.