Messi the magnificent
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola insisted that he was clean out of adjectives and frankly so was everyone else. Spain was suffering a severe shortage of superlatives. The Catalan newspaper, Sport, invited readers to send in headlines for what they had just witnessed and there were plenty of super, sensational and sublimes, some magic, magnificent and marvellouses, wows and wonderfuls, plus deities by the dozen, but still there was no way really to do it justice.
What they had witnessed recently would have been one of the most brilliant performances imaginable from Barcelona’s Lionel Messi but for one thing: you would never have imagined it. It was a performance that started off well, got better in the middle and by the end was barely believable. It got better and better and better and when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it got better again. It was football the way no one else has played football.
“He’s the best player in the world and the best in the history of football,” said club president Joan Laporta.
“He is, without doubt, the leader of Barcelona. With Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona, he is the best player we have seen here.”
“Tonight I saw Diego Maradona but at more revs per minute,” claimed Jose Aurelio Gay, the coach of the humbled Real Zaragoza team. “There are no words left to describe him—he is interplanetary. We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12.”
He didn’t score 12, he scored three. For his first trick Messi headed Barcelona into the lead. For his second he won the ball near the halfway line, dashed forward, the ball never leaving his foot, stepped around three challenges, left a defender on his backside and hit a low shot into the net. And for his hat-trick, he curled in a beauty from the edge of the area.
Then he produced a bit of barely plausible skill, flicking over one man and stepping beyond another, before being pulled down for a penalty. It would have been his fourth only he got up and handed the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic instead. “Well,’ Messi shrugged, “Zlatan needed it.” He had done the truly impossible—scored three and made Ibrahimovic score, too.
‘Messi is the God of football’
He was, insisted Carles Ruiperez in La Vanguardia, “Unbelievable. Unrivalled. Unrepeatable. Spectacular. Marvellous. Wonderful. Genial. Incredible.” “Messi is the God of football,” declared Sport.
“Stratospheric. Magical. Divine. Generous. Extraordinary.” “ET”, ran the headline inside, “was born in Rosario and plays in Barcelona”. “Brutal,” added El Mundo Deportivo and on the inside it recalled the famous Ronaldo goal against Compostela—one so insultingly good it had his manager, Bobby Robson, pacing back and forth on the touchline, head in hands, muttering: “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” and the Compostela players threatening to sue for damages.
“Maradona + Ronaldo”, ran the equation, “= Messi”. El Pais called him “infinity”, while El Mundo reserved for him a “place among the greatest”. Even the pro-Real Madrid newspaper Marca found a place for him on its cover. Near the bottom, but on the cover nonetheless, with the headline “Super Messi”. “Maradona, here’s your son”, it said inside. AS, too, gave Messi big billing. “Messi,” said the paper, “is from another world!”
All of which might seem a bit over the top for a hat-trick against the side that conceded six against Real Madrid and lie just three points above the relegation zone. “It’s only Zaragoza,” one party-pooper shouted. Only, it’s not only Zaragoza, it’s everyone else, too. It’s every game.
One of the incredible things about Messi is how rarely he disappoints. In fact it’s tempting to conclude that he has made the ridiculous so routine that he doesn’t get talked about as much as he deserves; playing perfectly is hardly news.
It was not just Zaragoza; it was the fact that Messi has now scored two La Liga hat-tricks in a row after an astonishingly brilliant three against Valencia a week earlier.
It was the fact that, until he handed the ball to Ibrahimovic, he had scored Barcelona’s past nine goals. It was the display against Stuttgart in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg that prompted the German club’s coach, Christian Gross, to admit: “Comparing him to Maradona is perfectly licit now.”
It was the eight goals in a week. The 11 in five games. The free kick against Almeria—so subtle, so soft you wondered whether he was wearing slippers. The 25 in the league already, the 34 in all competitions.
Leading the pack
It’s not just the goals either. When it comes to the inevitable and often tedious comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the things that is often said about Messi is that he is not as complete. Earlier this season Marca asked the man who had just published a glossy, club-sponsored biography of Ronaldo to do a comparison of Ronaldo and Messi.
Surprise, surprise, Ronaldo won. He scored higher than Messi in heading, speed, shooting, leadership, physical condition and free kicks and penalties, scoring the same in technique and passing.
But last season Messi scored twice as many Champions League goals with half as many shots. This season Messi is La Liga’s top scorer with 10 more than Ronaldo, has provided the most assists (Ronaldo is not in the top 20) and has completed more passes than any other attacker.
Messi’s career statistics speak for themselves. The 79 goals in 129 games. The two European Cups and three league titles. If he was not already the best player in the world in his first three seasons, it’s because of injury. Every season he missed at least 10 matches. But when he played there were special moments.
An unbelievable hat-trick against Real Madrid. That Getafe goal, a mirror image of Maradona’s dribble from the halfway line against England in 1986. The way he took over from Ronaldinho.
You always felt he was just an injury-free season away from being the best. Last season he got it. He scored 38 times. There was the top-scorer’s award in the Champions League, the goal in the Champions League final, the goal in the World Club Cup final and the two in what was effectively the league final—the historic 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, when he was described as “Maradona, Cruyff and Best rolled into one”. As well as the superb hat-trick that knocked Atletico Madrid out of the Spanish Cup and saw the previously hostile Vicente Calderon hand him a standing ovation. It is not just everything Messi has done, but how he has done it. How he gets hacked at and somehow keeps on running. That the ball really does seem to be tied to his feet. He doesn’t even seem to kick it most of the time: like a faithful dog, it just runs alongside him.
That he’s like the kid in the Under-10 team that picks the ball up, runs rings around everyone and scores; that he is exactly the kid he was when he was a kid. That he goes from 0-60 in no time and from 60-0 again in even less—what was so stunning about one of his goals against Valencia was how suddenly he stopped, sending the defender screeching by like a cartoon character off a cliff.
Yes, Messi has more to win to prove he is as good as anyone who has gone before him. Yes, he still has to achieve things to make his case watertight, particularly with Argentina. But how could it be otherwise? After all, for all the touches, the goals, the assists and the win-it-on-his-own performances, perhaps the most ridiculous thing of all is that Messi is still only 22.—