Lionel Messi may have last night secured another jaw-dropping record, that of Gerd Muller’s 85 goals in a calendar year, but it is the style in which he has accomplished the feat that illustrates how the 25-year-old has soared to yet another level.
A couple of years ago, the sight of Messi cutting in from the right, those small, piston-like legs a mere blur, leaving bemused defenders in his wake en route to another wonder goal was almost becoming routine.
During 2012 however, the wonder goals were almost absent by comparison, instead ’the Flea’ had morphed into a scoring machine of wolf-like ruthlessness.
Look back at the 86 goals that Messi has scored so far this year, and what stands out is not a list of wonder goals, but a supremely clinical demonstration of the art of goalscoring: no fuss, no risks, but sheer ability allied to a percentage game taken to the extreme.
Of course there are some remarkable goals – a lovely nutmeg and chip over the goalkeeper against Sevilla back in March stands out – but what stands out from the 86 goals is how similar many of them are.
A left-foot shot from just inside the area going low past the keeper for instance is repeated time after time.
As if to illustrate the point the Argentinian did just that tonight at Real Betis to first equal Muller’s mark on 16 minutes and then, just nine minutes later, calmly roll in his record breaker after one of his chief assist-makers Andres Iniesta located him in the merest of space only he needs.
This element of Messi’s game has been emphasised by his change of position into more of a forward role than in his earlier years at Barcelona.
The master dribbler and creator supreme is now an assassin with a killer’s instinct: his goals per game are almost up there with Muller, who netted 85 times for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 60 matches, or Pele who struck 75 goals in 53 games – both during eras where high-scoring matches were much more the norm.
Earlier this year, Pele tried to pour cold water on suggestions that despite his youth Messi is already the best player of all time – not surprising perhaps, after all he has his brand to protect.
Pele, and those who stand behind him or Diego Maradona, point to the fact that Messi has not matched their achievements on the international stage, something that is difficult to dispute. Comparisons with players from a different era are notoriously suspect anyway.
What Messi has proved this year is that he is a man who can do it all: run, dribble, tackle, head and score: and score again and again and again.
The debate about who is the best is tedious and unwinnable: we should just appreciate our fortune at being alive during his glorious years. If you have the chance to see him in the flesh, take it. Then nurture those memories and keep them safe for the time when you can tell your grandchildren that you saw Lionel Messi play: and that he was the greatest, no debate.