Top goal scorer in Spain, top goal scorer in the Champions League for the second season in a row and on track to possibly win La Liga and the Champions League once again.
‘Mythical, universal, the Lord’s anointed one’ – Spain hails Leo Messi
After Lionel Messi’s performance against Arsenal everyone agrees he’s the best in the world – but what took them so long?
The front page of Marca following Barcelona’s Champions League win over Arsenal.
Leo Messi did something impossible last night. He got even better. He had scored in the Champions League final, the Copa del Rey final and the World Club Cup final, emulated that goal from Diego Maradona, hit three in the clasico against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou, two at the Santiago Bernabéu, and scored two hat-tricks in a row.
But he’d never scored four before. Until last night. Last night, even Marca and AS, the myopic leaders of the Madrid media dropped to their knees; last night, so did the English. They could ignore him no more. Last night, as El PaÌs, put it, “Messi ate Arsenal”.
AS has long been proud of its cagumetro – literally, crapping-yourself-o-meter – the tool used to ‘measure’ the fear they claim grips Barcelona fans every time Real Madrid rear into view, its needle furiously twitching before shooting up towards a million cagahertz.
This morning, three days from the clasico, they’re applying it to themselves. “Messi,” declares the cover of AS, “is frightening”. Inside, their headline chanted: “Messi! Messi! Messi! Messi!”, while the inventor of this delightful device, Barça-baiter-in-chief Tomas Guasch, was busy saying a prayer: “Ay Manuel Pellegrini, may God guide you!” As for Marca, their cover asks: “And how do we stop this guy?”
It is a pertinent question. Booting him about doesn’t seem to work; he just gets even more determined. And besides, it is easier said than done. A few weeks ago, the Mallorca manager Gregorio Manzano insisted that the only way was with a rifle.Last night, Arsene Wenger described him as “a PlayStation footballer”.
The Catalan daily Sport calls him “football’s Picasso”, insisting: “We’re going to have to expand the dictionary to find new adjectives for him, because majestic, lethal, magic, incomparable and divine have all been used up.” Its website implored fans: “Don’t say football, say Messi.”
El Mundo Deportivo went for “mythical, universal, the Lord’s anointed one.” But most cut out the middle man. “There is,” said El Mundo, “only one God: Messi”.
But all that’s not entirely new. It’s less than two weeks since Spain’s severe superlatives shortage was reported on these pages.
Uncovering new adjectives is an impossible task. Victor Valdés was only the latest person to admit defeat, shrugging: “I can’t find the words to define him – I’m just very proud that he’s on my team.” What was new was seeing Marca and AS lead with him on the cover, and Marca’s cartoonist depicting Messi as a little green man with antenna on his head and long, horn-shaped ears under the caption: “From another planet”.
So was the reaction from England, the unanimous acclaim. “Messi,” said Wenger, “is the best player in the world – by a distance.”
At last everyone seemed to agree; 90 minutes against Arsenal had done the trick. Even Phil Thompson must have given in, despite recently declaring: “Wayne Rooney is streets ahead of Messi.” (Which streets, Phil, which bloody streets?!)
Watching the game on Sky, browsing blogs, reading reports, it’s tempting to conclude that England discovered Leo Messi last night. What took you? A match against an English club, that’s what.
As if that’s the only measure of greatness. It shouldn’t have done. They shouldn’t have discovered him against Arsenal; he has hardly been hidden away.
“I really don’t want to compare Leo with any other player in the world because that other player would come off so badly – he’s just so far ahead.” That’s what Xavi Hernandez said. A year ago. Yesterday he added: “A player like this only comes along every 30 years or so.” Rafa Marquez said: “Messi has proven once again that he is the best in the world.” The key words were ‘once’ and ‘again’. They would say that of course. But does anyone doubt that they are right?
This is not the place to go over Messi’s extraordinary qualities again, that’s been done before. It is the place, though, to point something out…
What Messi did last night was brilliant. In fact, it was more brilliant that the goals alone suggest. Just look at the two he didn’t score – the curler that clipped the top of the goal, the scamper through that ended with him hitting it into the side-netting. Look at the fact that he didn’t just score the first two; it was his passes that made them as well. But, ridiculous though this sounds, last night’s performance was not unusual. In fact, it is precisely the consistency of his brilliance that has seen it become almost mundane; he makes the ridiculous routine.
When he scored a hat-trick against Zaragoza a fortnight ago, one fan started shouting something about how brilliant he is. Pep Guardiola approached the fan and replied: “If it wasn’t for him, I’d be a third division coach.” Last night he became their all-time top scorer in the Champions League. He is top scorer in this season’s La Liga. He has provided more assists than anyone else, too. Yesterday was his fourth hat-trick of the season. He has scored 119 goals for Barcelona and he’s still only 22.
It is not just about the spectacular. Earlier this season, asked about the pressure on Messi after a ‘poor’ game, Guardiola insisted: “Messi can play badly as often as he likes.” Thing is, Messi never plays badly, even when he plays ‘badly’. Sometimes he is not spectacular, sure, but he is never poor. Take the first leg against Arsenal: most people will tell you that Messi did little, but he had more than twice as many shots on target than anyone else and played more passes than any Arsenal player. He even answers the cliché about tracking back and work-rate: Messi has committed more fouls than any Barcelona defender.
One former Barcelona and Real Madrid player makes the point that when Ronaldo plays a pass, the first thing he does is demand it back. Messi is happy just to play, to keep it simple, to keep it moving. At the Camp Nou only one Arsenal player completed as many passes. Increasingly, Messi is not just scoring but – with Xavi, surely the finest midfielder Spain has ever produced – running games too. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted he was “surprised” to see Messi play centrally in Rome last season but he shouldn’t have been.
As one opponent puts it: “Messi is the best striker for his goals, the best winger for his dribbling, the best midfielder for his passes.” That night in Rome Messi did what Messi always does: answered the questions asked of him. There is just one question left – the Argentina one. And on the evidence so far, he will end up answering that too.
They said he didn’t do it in big games – although goodness knows how they had the cheek to say that; did the clasico and the cup final not count? – so he did it in the Champions League final.
They said he had never scored against an English team, and after a game in Santander it had been noted that he could not head a ball. Guardiola replied: “I advise you not to question Leo. One day, he’s going to score a great header and shut you all up.” Everyone laughed. He scored with a towering header, outjumping Rio Ferdinand.
But still they wanted more, and more, and more. There seemed to be a strange, bloody-minded determination not to recognise him. So Messi provided it. He started racking up goal after goal but they said that anyone could score goals in Spain. So last night he became top scorer in the Champions League. For the second successive season.
And, for those who had forgotten Rome, he obliterated Arsenal into the bargain. Now they’re saying Messi is the best player in the world. It shouldn’t have taken last night to realise it.