DAVID SHONFIELD: The best player in the modern game without a doubt

In football’s catechism of cliché it is customary to claim that some one-season wonder is “frighteningly good”.

Lionel Messi is simply the best. The best player in the best team, surely destined to be voted the best in the world for a record fourth time, and now the best striker of all time.

Records can lie, or at least distort the truth. This one doesn’t. Gerd Muller’s 40-year-old record of 85 goals in a calendar year was a monument, an impossible achievement. It was a record that included 36 goals in 33 league matches and 12 goals in six European Cup ties, but was also boosted by a further 12 in the German Liga Pokal (league cup), a one-off competition that was played in 1972 because the start of the football season was delayed for a month by the Munich Olympics.

Messi has now surpassed that impossible achievement with three games to spare. Frightening is an inadequate word. Awe would be more appropriate, above all because he’s only halfway through a career that is likely to eclipse everything that’s gone before.

Back in April 2006 the Italian football magazine Guerin Sportivo ran an article entitled The Messi Generation to describe the rising stars of the game: one of those articles you file away for future reference.

Their top 11 included some young men who have made it, and some who have underachieved.

Cesc Fabregas, Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and Sergio Ramos are household names. Igor Akinfeev has stayed put at his club (CSKA Moscow) as goalkeepers do, but still has time on his side. Fernando Gago, Nuri Sahin and Urby Emanuelson have made little impact despite big-money moves. Anthony Vanden Borre has almost vanished from the radar after spells at Portsmouth and Genk (he’s now gone to Simferopol in Ukraine) while Valeri Bojinov is struggling to rebuild his career on loan at Verona in Italy’s Serie B after several disastrous moves.

That’s how football is of course — except for Messi, who has gone on and on, year after year, improving when it almost seemed indecent to suggest that there was room for him to do so.

These last 12 months have been untypical for his club. The team who had won everything came away with nothing.

Messi was so deadly from February into April — 26 goals in 14 games, including a record five against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League — that he and Barcelona seemed truly unstoppable. Then he drew a blank in three successive matches against Real Madrid and Chelsea and his team were out of the two competitions that mattered.

The pictures of an inconsolable Messi after that penalty miss and semi-final defeat were poignant. Perhaps he might come from Planet Earth after all. Would this be the moment for his first real setback, a time when doubts would set in and his form would suffer? On the contrary. He has responded like a true champion, with even more hunger and determination.

Since August he’s failed to score in seven of his 23 games for Barcelona. He’s scored two goals or more in 13 matches.

Disappointment seems also to have steeled him in his games for Argentina. Until recently you could argue he under-performed for his country — a very good player obviously, but not a great one. The last edition of the Copa America was a case in point. Bolivia and Costa Rica are not the strongest opposition.

Suddenly that has changed, partly thanks to Argentina’s new coach Alejandro Sabella. The catalyst was perhaps the match against Brazil in June. It may only have been a friendly against a Brazilian pre-Olympic side, but Messi’s hat-trick in the 4-3 win definitely proved a point.

The best player in the modern game — without a doubt. Is he now the best ever? Arrigo Sacchi, the great Milan coach, sidesteps the question when Messi is compared to Maradona. “Maradona was a unique individual, Messi is a fantastic player for his team.” Others will maintain that Pele still reigns supreme — or Alfredo Di Stefano, who could play in almost any position on the pitch.

If not the greatest now, though — surely he will be in the future. And it will be thoroughly deserved. As Gerd Muller commented yesterday: “I’m delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic. And he’s such a nice and modest professional.”

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