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After winning the Ballon d’Or for the third time running the Barcelona forward’s brilliance has made the incredible routine

Cristiano Ronaldo did not travel to Zurich. If there was any doubt that he was not going to win the Ballon d’Or, the decision to stay in Madrid alongside his coach, José Mourinho, washed it away. No one had any other doubts: Lionel Messi would be named the world’s best player for the third year in a row. Of all the comments that were made about Messi, the very certainty of his success was perhaps the most eloquent. It is not as if others haven’t made a case; it is just that even they cannot make a case like his.

Last season, Ronaldo scored the winning goal in the Copa del Rey, clinching Real Madrid’s first major trophy for three years. He won the Pichichi award, top scorer in Spain, as he had been in England, and collected the ESM Golden Shoe after scoring 40 goals in La Liga – more than anyone else, ever. In total, he scored 53 times in 54 competitive games. So far this season, he has 26 in 25 games. And still there could be no complaints.

There were none from Xavi Hernández, the man who finished third in Zurich. “It’s very hard for me to win this,” he said beforehand, “because I’m up against the player that will be the best in history. Leo will break all the records – he is still young.” That is the thing: at just 24, Messi has already taken the debate to a different plane. With young players, the talk is always of improvement; Messi need just keep on. As Gerard Piqué put it: “The only thing I ask of Messi is that he continues to love this game.”

It is no longer about whether or not Messi is currently the best player in the world; it is about whether he might even be the best there has ever been. “Messi is amongst the best ever,” Sir Alex Ferguson said. “Messi,” Pep Guardiola said, “could be the best player of all time.” This is his third Ballon d’Or. He is 24, remember. There has long since been a severe shortage of superlatives; they have all been used up. It is almost two years since Joan Laporta, the former Barcelona president, described him as the best footballer to have played for the club. Better than Ronaldo, Romário and Rivaldo; Stoichkov, Kubala, Suárez and Cruyff. Better than Maradona.

Even on 2011’s performances alone, Messi’s case is ridiculously strong. He scored 31 goals in the league last season, getting a total of 53 in 55 competitive games. So far this season he has 17 in 17 league games. And for those who question the quality of the Spanish league, he was top scorer in another, harder league too: the Champions League, in which he scored 12 – the highest total ever. That includes two at the Santiago Bernabéu in the semi-final – one of them among the best the competition has seen.

Since then, Messi has scored three and provided the other two as Barcelona won the Spanish Super Cup 5-4 on aggregate, beating Madrid. He scored in the European Super Cup and the World Club Championship. In 2011, he scored in all six competitions he played. He won five of the six, losing the final in the other.

But it is not just about 2011 and it is not just about the goals. The top scorer in the 2010-11 Champions League has been the competition’s top scorer for three years in a row. He is currently joint top scorer in this year’s competition. And he has a habit of scoring in the biggest games; two Champions League finals, two World Club finals, a Copa del Rey final, and goal after goal against Madrid – no goalkeeper has conceded as many against him as Iker Casillas.

Last season, there were 19 assists in La Liga too, more than anyone else, and this season he has seven already, plus three more in the Champions League. Playing as a false No9, Messi is more and more involved, dropping deeper, controlling the game as well as killing it: in La Liga, only four players have completed more passes than him. Barcelona’s control benefits him but it is also, in part, owed to him.

And that’s just the statistics. Then there is the intangible sensation: the control at speed, the softness of touch, the variety in his play, the vision, the simplicity, the mastery of the tempo, where stopping is as important as starting, the sheer, jaw-dropping ridiculousness of it. The relentlessness of his brilliance; he has made the incredible routine.

He is a “PlayStation footballer”, as Arsène Wenger put it – and he didn’t mean one controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd. People questioned the fact that he didn’t score against English clubs. He put four past Arsenal. Last season, there was a second in two finals against Manchester United. The first had been a header.

Every time there is a question raised, a challenge presented, Messi answers it – with the lingering, and hugely importantly, exception of international success. Messi was right to insist upon the role played by his Barcelona team-mates. But do not let that overshadow his talent. The comparisons with Ronaldo have been constant; they have also been constantly resolved – so far, at least – in Messi’s favour. Now, even Ronaldo’s trenchant supporters have lost their voice. It should not shame them or him. Ronaldo is brilliant; Messi, though, is better.

Right now, he is better than anyone else. At the World Club Championship, Pelé claimed that Neymar was a superior player. Messi led Barcelona to a 4-0 win, scoring twice. “We have been taught a lesson,” Neymar said afterwards. Xavi once insisted: “I don’t even want to compare Messi to anyone else – it just isn’t fair. On them.”

He’s right. It isn’t.

article sent by Mike Gani

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