Matt Oldfield

Rarely in the history of football has the ‘best player in the world’ discussion been so one-sided. While Cristiano Ronaldo is doing all in his considerable power to upstage his rival, Lionel Messi remains untouchable. The scary thing is that at just 24 years of age, Messi is still improving and looks likely to dominate world football for another decade.

Recent criticism the little wizard received for going three games without a goal is the clearest sign yet of the ridiculous weight of expectation. And Messi’s response was sublime; the thick-skinned Argentinian silenced his doubters with consecutive hat-tricks against Real Mallorca and Viktoria Plzen.

For once, comparisons with the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele seem justified. In June, fellow Ballon d’Or nominee Wayne Rooney shed light on the players’ view: “Messi is the best player ever. What we’ve seen over the last two or three years is incredible. It will be difficult to see that again”, admitted the Manchester United forward.

By the age of 21, Messi had been nominated for all of football’s top awards; by 23, he was the FIFA World Player of the Year and the winner of the Ballon d’Or by the largest ever margin. And the accolades and awards just keep flowing. He already has over 200 goals for Barcelona, placing him third in their list of all-time goalscorers behind Paulino Alcantara, who bagged 357 goals in 357 games, and Cesar Rodriguez who scored 235 goals in 13 seasons at the Camp Nou; Messi is in only his seventh season. The Argentine has no shortage of admirers, but what is it that makes him so good?

Complete Player?

Brazilian legend Pele recently labelled Messi an ‘incomplete player’ because ‘he cannot use his head.’ The accusation is laughable; who could forget Messi’s pinpoint header past Manchester United keeper Edwin van der Saar in the 2009 Champions League final? For a striker who is only 5ft 6in, the Argentine is actually remarkably powerful in the air, showing great leverage, technique and placement.

But it is indeed a talent rarely used. Barcelona’s style of play has never involved the aerial ball; Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, David Villa and Messi are all under 5ft 10in. Barcelona’s ‘tiki-taka’ approach is all about possession football, passing triangles with the ball largely on the deck. Here, Messi is in his element, with the deftest touch in the game. An unselfish creator as well as a ruthless goalscorer, the Argentinian wizard has an incredible 53 assists to his name in the last three seasons.

And with the ball at his feet, the forward is mesmerising. His quick feet, surprising burst of pace, stocky strength and low centre of gravity make him almost impossible to contain. During the 2010/11 season, Messi attempted a mammoth 331 dribbles, more than any other player in the top five European leagues. While predominantly left-footed on the ball, the Blaugrana star has never been afraid to use his weaker foot. In fact, approximately a quarter of Messi’s goals have been scored with his right foot. It is hard to find fault in the Argentina international’s game.

Playing the Game the Right Way

In terms of personality, Messi and Ronaldo could not be more different. Where the Portuguese star is considered arrogant and dramatic, the Argentinian is modest and steers clear of media scandal. Messi plays with the passion and enthusiasm of a schoolboy, and a real affection for his club and their supporters. While sometimes quick to go down under a challenge, the Rosario-born talent has always been admired for his approach to the beautiful game. Even with the world at his feet, Messi is determined to do better. “I’ve won everything with Barca – and I want to do it all again”, he said. “I want to keep improving.”

Messi could never be accused of lacking the nerve for the big occasion. Instead, the Argentinian relishes it, raising his game at just the right time. Messi scored in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals and has a record of 13 goals in 15 games against Spanish rivals Real Madrid, including a stunning solo strike in the 2011 Champions League semi-final. The 2010 World Cup was a rare underwhelming performance on the big stage, and one that Messi will be desperate to put right in 2014.

A Player Still on the Rise?

Messi’s game is still developing, a prospect fascinating to fans and terrifying for opponents. He is both scoring and creating more than ever. This season he has already scored 24 goals in just 19 games, with 11 assists at the time of writing, a spectacular showing including four hat-tricks; and all this while enduring a so-called ‘goal drought’. If the 24-year-old carries on at this breath-taking rate, he will trump even his incredible 2010/11 season. 53 goals in 55 games, with 24 assists sounded impossible to repeat, let alone beat. But Messi is just that good.

In terms of goals, Messi’s career has shown a clear upward curve over the last four seasons. In the 2008/09 campaign, supported by Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, the Argentinian forward scored 38 times; in the 2009/10 season, alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pedro, he managed 47; and last year , with David Villa for company, Messi scored 53. At his current rate, the Barcelona star could hit an unthinkable 70 goals this time around. One would be a fool to rule it out.

The Argentinian’s all-round game is also going from strength to strength. Supported by the likes of Eto’o and Henry, Messi was content to take on more of a playmaking role at times, setting up 18 goals. With the departure of these two strikers, and the arrival of Ibrahimovic, Messi recognised his new role as Barcelona’s major goalscorer. Thus his scoring increased and his creativity decreased, although the talent did still provide a highly commendable 11 assists. The signing of proven goalscorer David Villa has seen the return of a more complete Messi. Only this time, he is better than ever. In the 2010/11 campaign, the Argentine managed 24 assists in all competitions, as his club side continued to develop their fluid, team approach.

Pivotal to Success

In 2010, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger commented of Messi: ‘He is the best player in the world by a long distance. He’s a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake you make. He has six or seven great years ahead of him and he can become unbelievable.’ Messi is well on his way to becoming ‘unbelievable’. As Holland and Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff points out, one of the great things about the stocky Argentinian is his ability to do the simple things with such grace, humility and incision.

This season, Messi and his club team-mates face their toughest test yet. Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side are flying and sit three points ahead of Barcelona in La Liga. In the Champions League, the Catalan giants safely top their group, but the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Real Madrid will provide very stiff competition in the knockout phase as Guardiola and co. look for back-to-back European titles.

A fit and in-form Messi will of course be pivotal to Barcelona’s chance of success both at home and abroad. And with the World Player of the Year currently in record-breaking shape, the Blaugrana should be quietly confident of winning it all again.