Lionel Messi is carrying Barcelona right now, but how long can it last?

FC Yahoo
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/lionel-messi/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> was incredible once again against <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/eibar/" data-ylk="slk:Eibar">Eibar</a>. If Barcelona needs that from him every match, it could be an issue. (AP)
Lionel Messi was incredible once again against Eibar. If Barcelona needs that from him every match, it could be an issue. (AP)

Lionel Messi has scored 11 goals in his last five games. Because he’s Messi. And because he’s in otherworldly form, even by his logic-defying, preternaturally high and paradigm-shifting standards.

On Tuesday, the 30-year-old Argentine bagged four goals in a routine 6-1 dismantling of Eibar in La Liga. A scooped penalty. An off-balance yet perfectly curling roller from the top of the box, surrounded by four defenders. A nutmeg of poor goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic on a run from the halfway line. A finish on an attack he build himself.

Magic. And his first four-goal game in almost four years.

And yet more credence to the notion that there should remain no debate to be had over who the greatest player ever is. It’s Messi. It has been Messi for years.

Barcelona lost Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain over the summer. The third-best player in the world. Or maybe the second-best, depending on how you measure Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence now that he’s a pure goalscorer rather than an all-around attacking threat. But Barca has made its best start to a league season since 2013-14, when it won its first eight. Barca has won five straight to open the league campaign.

In Neymar’s absence, and with Luis Suarez not fully fit or on form, Messi has been doing it on his own. The big summer signing, 20-year-old French winger Ousmane Dembele, isn’t ready to help carry the load. And besides, he’s now injured until the end of the year.

This isn’t necessarily new. During his time with Barca, Messi’s supporting cast has steadily been stripped down. As a teenager, he came into a team dominated by Ronaldinho, until the Brazilian was moved on at least in part to leave more attacking oxygen for Messi to breathe. Samuel Eto’o led the attack, finishing Messi’s service and drawing attention away from him. Over the next decade or so, Xavi was the best distributor in the world. And Andres Iniesta the perfect complement as an attacking midfielder for Messi to combine with. In Dani Alves, Messi even had a right back who became an offensive partner in crime.

They’re all gone but for Iniesta, who can’t play 90 minutes anymore and whose truly transcendent performances are becoming rare now that he’s 33. The replacements, Suarez and Neymar, have not been available to Messi to begin the season.

So he’s had to do most all of it himself. It feels harsh to call a side with Iniesta, Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique in it a one-man team. But Barca has looked and felt that way in the first month of this campaign. A bit like Diego Maradona’s Argentina teams of the late 1980s: strong and deep yet utterly dominated by one man.

In the 20th minute, Nelson Semedo combined with Iniesta and was bundled over in the box by Alex Galvez. Messi deftly dinked in the penalty.

Before halftime, Paulinho met a well-whipped Denis Suarez corner and hammered his header past Dmitrovic. It was the only Barca goal of the day that didn’t directly involve Messi.

Because in the 53rd minute, Denis Suarez cleaned up the rebound from a Messi run and shot.

Eibar saved its honor — somewhat — just before the hour.

But then Messi got three more. From the edge of the box, he faked a cut and quickly shot instead, curling the ball to the perfect spot.

A few minutes later, he started a run from the half-way line, exchanged the ball with Paulinho, and slipped it through Dmitrovic’s legs.

Finally, in the late going, he finished a combination with Aleix Vidal.

These aren’t the games that will wear Messi down, necessarily. That will happen in the months where the matches pile up and tougher opposition taxes his conditioning and his limbs with a regular treatment of hard fouls.

Last season, Messi missed a combined month and a half with injuries to his groin. He lost 13 games to injuries the season before that. And in 2013-14, he was out 2 1/2 months with a torn muscle and a hamstring injury.

Messi is hardly a brittle player, but he’s also never been exposed as much he is now, a few months after hitting 30 — when most soccer players begin to decline. There’s no evidence at all that his best days are behind him. In fact, you could just as easily make the opposite argument — there’s just no telling where Messi is in the arc of an unprecedented career. Yet he’s prone now.

There have always been several players around him to distract opposing teams. Attackers of sufficient caliber that focusing a gameplan entirely on Messi would backfire when others punished you. But it’s never been more true that to stop Barca, you must stop Messi. Because other than Suarez, on his good days, who is going to make you pay the price for devoting all your defensive resources to Messi?

If the little dribbler is as remarkable as ever, he also has an enormous amount of miles on his legs. There’s a reason attacking players who break through as teenagers tend to fade earlier — in their late 20s. There’s a limit to the physical toll your body can take before it starts to decay and for your speed or durability to erode.

That hasn’t happened with Messi yet. But if anything is going to accelerate his aging as a soccer player, it’s having to carry a club expected to win every last game on his shoulders.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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