Commentary

Golden age for Lionel Messi

Whether in front of goal -- or between the sticks -- Messi is magic

Updated: March 14, 2012, 2:51 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeLionel Messi
David Ramos/Getty ImagesUnstoppable: Lionel Messi has notched 50 club goals this season.

We have Carles Puyol to thank for conclusive proof that there's nothing, absolutely nothing, Lionel Messi can't do on a football pitch.

Barcelona's rampaging center half actually started his own football career as a goalkeeper, but he was, even then, so fearless and negligent of his own safety that his mother took him to the doctor, who admitted that because there were very few grass pitches where Puyol grew up, the lad was in danger of damaging his spine by throwing himself about as much as he did.

Through spells as a striker and winger, Puyol emerged as a buccaneering full back and then the towering center back who has won everything with club and country.

However, there has always been something in the DNA makeup of footballers which makes them think that they can also do the things their teammates do.

Jose Molina, now the Villarreal manager, famously made his debut with Spain as an outfield player against Norway despite the fact that he was a goalkeeper for the entirety of his top-level career. So, at training, naturally the strikers like to play a little between the sticks. Pele, Johan Cruyff and Ronaldo used to love to test themselves out in goal during training.

However, proof that Messi not only does that, but is nuts enough to make a full-length, mid-air save of world-class caliber (check it out here) is something for which we have to thank Puyol and the remarkable photo he posted on Twitter.

The still image doesn't prove that Pep Guardiola was elsewhere, but I'm willing to bet that (a) he was; and (b) if he saw Messi hurtling through the air with his right arm fully extended, he would have called a halt to the practice.

The idea of the wee man injuring himself in a training session making some mad-cap save while Barca players either rain shots or penalties at him must make the fans and coaches of that club cringe in terror. Because even if La Liga proves to be beyond their reach this season (a lovely Betis performance at the weekend still ended with Real Madrid showing a mixture of power, determination, character and some good fortune to escape with all three points) there are two trophies left to contest.

And right now, if Messi maintains his fitness it's hard to imagine him not being the decisive factor. His brace against Racing Santander this past weekend means that, although we are barely in March, Messi has notched 50 club goals this season.

It is a ridiculous figure.

And it means that, at age 24, he is six short of beating the all-time Barcelona scoring record of 235 held by Cesar Rodriguez.

Over the past week I have, for one reason or another, been in Messi's presence three times for interviews and I can tell you that there isn't a trace of hubris. No arrogance, no intense desire to grab the record and all the plaudits which go with it -- not even a hint of self-satisfaction.

One of the elements which may, eventually, elevate Messi to gold-medal position in the pantheon of all-time greats is his manner. For all the wealth, fame, acclaim and brouhaha which is quite naturally drawn to a sportsman of such excellence, he's still simply doing the thing he enjoys most.

Speaking to him after the destruction of Bayer Leverkusen, during which Messi became the first man in Champions League history to score five times in a match and the also the first to score four goals on two occasions, the striker was completely nonchalant. He'd done his job, he'd enjoyed it, he'd kept on going and going like a shark pursuing baby seals toward the end of the match, but Messi came off the pitch quite unconcerned at the records he was setting.

The team had won, he'd played well, the fans had been entertained and young Christian Tello had proved, again, that Barcelona's Futbol Base is producing 24-karat gems -- that was enough to make this little maestro content.

By Monday, working for sponsors, we saw a Messi who is patient, increasingly confident, courteous and also increasingly at ease fielding dozens of media questions.

What with the hat trick he scored for Argentina to cap a run of many months when he's not only been his country's captain but also its most effective player, this is a golden, happy time for Messi.

He has scored in all six competitions in which Barcelona has played this season, he is en route to winning the Champions League top-scorer crown for the fourth consecutive season. And what I think makes this current tally so remarkable is that (despite the almost innate link he enjoys with Cesc Fabregas) the injuries and form loss from Pedro and David Villa have meant that Barca now often plays without the width which gives Messi more space and time to create or score.

[+] EnlargeCristiano Ronaldo
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty ImagesCristiano Ronaldo needs just two goals to make him the fastest to score 100 times in the history of La Liga.

It's also worth pointing out that despite Cristiano Ronaldo's barbaric scoring form, it isn't even that which drives Messi on.

No article which I write in appreciation of Lionel Messi would be either honest or complete without a proper expression of respect for Ronaldo. He needs just two goals to make him the fastest in history to score 100 times in La Liga and he has 15 games in hand to achieve it.

Ronaldo is a phenomenon. Not as good a football brain as Messi, but an extraordinary athlete and a relentless competitor who is obsessed by goals. He has registered one per game in the 46 Real Madrid matches he's played this season.

But Messi isn't looking over his shoulder at the Portuguese. Playing the way he does is part nature, part enjoyment. Nothing has changed for him from the days when, at age 14, he used to play on the hard, rutted, grass-free pitches around Catalunya in the Barca junior teams during which he was kicked by opponents and protected by his big pal Gerard Pique.

Messi has a gift, he enjoys using it and he sees no reason not to play, and score, and play and score, and play and score.

For him it's as straightforward as eating, breathing or sleeping is for us.

And his current level of excellence puts a spotlight on an old, wise, expression. It has been said for many years that football is a simple game made complicated by people who know no better. I've asked Guardiola and Messi about this, and both their answers are completely in tune.

Each of them explains that the key thing is that Guardiola has put Messi "nearer the goal."

Messi was a winger when Guardiola moved up to take control of the first team in 2008, but very soon after he became a central striker.

"If your best player is an attacker, then the nearer the goal you play him the more he's likely to score," was Guardiola's pretty straightforward reasoning.

Before Guardiola took over, Messi scored 16 in 40 games. In the years from summer 2008, he has scored 38 in 51, 47 in 53, and now 53 in 55.

The fact that Barcelona have lost out on a guy who would have been a damn fine goalkeeper is just something they will have to live with.

Speaking of goalkeepers …

Back in the middle of last September, Andres Fernandez was walking off the pitch at Camp Nou when Victor Valdes jogged up to him. Having just conceded eight times, the Osasuna keeper might have taken it badly when Valdes gave him a little hug and said, "Learn from that tonight and it'll help you grow."

It wasn't meant in anything other than a fraternal sense, but I know many who would have been too hot-headed, too dull of mind or just too much in pain to accept the advice.

Not Fernandez. He stored it away, reviewed the game, worked on a couple of points and was on the winning side against Barcelona in the second round of matches.

But it wasn't just that experience he had to digest. Fernandez's side also shipped seven goals at the Bernabeu.

So when Fernandez rescued his team with a wonder save from Iker Muniain in the dying seconds as Osasuna defeated next-door neighbors Athletic Bilbao 2-1 this past weekend, I was hugely pleased for him. And it sheds light on the kind of season he is having.

Not only did that win vault Osasuna over Athletic into sixth position, within two points of a Champions League place, if you take away the 15 goals conceded away to Spain's top two teams, Fernandez has only been beaten 25 times.

Fernandez puts some of his mental strength down to Buddhism -- something his mother recommended him to study. "Thanks to Buddhism, I know myself better, I'm calmer and I'm a better keeper," he said. You can either be dominated by what happens to you or you can force yourself to cope. This work I'm in can eat you up inside without you even knowing what's going on. I'm also better now at not getting caught up in all the nonsense other people try to put on you."

May Fernandez help Osasuna to achieve Nirvana this season.

Final whistle

It's mayhem in Spain right now. Hysteria reigns over claim and counter claim about refereeing decisions, alleged bias and "penalties" not awarded.

I think that much of what is currently aired in the Spanish media right now (particularly the inane panel shows where so-called journalists sit and shout at each other) is bringing a bad name on the profession. Proof, not opinion, is required for most of what is being both hinted and stated.

However, the massive media furor does influence referees given that they are ordinary human beings and are as prone to consuming opinions as anyone else.

For example, I was recently in a hotel bar watching the rerun of yet another Messi master class when the entire refereeing outfit from the game I had attended turned up. They ordered a couple of drinks, asked for the remote control and flipped the channel away from brilliant football that they could not have witnessed earlier that evening, to one of those very shows where a clutch of fame-hungry reporters literally yelled and snarled at each other without listening to a word anyone else said.

What those refereeing officials stood to gain from that zoo television is beyond me. But it was further proof that refs are as susceptible as anyone else concerning the need to discover whether they are being given approval or not.

If, as it seems to the objective eye, there has been a higher number of debatable decisions this season, then I'd be inclined to look first toward the hysterical and often biased media coverage for some explanation than to those who are crying conspiracy.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.