Nearly 16 years after debuting for Barcelona at age 16, the miracle that is Lionel Messi is currently dominating the argument for the best player on the planet in the vacuum of the current season ahead of his 32nd birthday in June.
Truth be told, Messi has been showing a bit too much of his alien skin of late, having a statistical season that dwarfs any mention of direct competition across Europe. He's Usain Bolt in his prime, with everyone else racing for second place. Beyond his individual brilliance, though, Messi also has Barcelona on course to capture an unprecedented third European treble in his first season as club captain.
"He is breaking all the records, and those he will still beat,” Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said about his star player last week. “He makes the public always expect something special from him, and he delivers it.”
Into his 30s, Messi should be slowing down and showing signs of decline, but ask defenders across Spain and Europe if the Argentine is slowing down.
"I think he's the best player in the world, but we'll see," Liverpool's Virgil Van Dijk said about Messi after the two teams advanced to the Champions League semifinals, and Van Dijk is widely considered the best defender in Europe.
For starters, Messi has 45 goals in 43 matches in the current campaign, which marks the 10th straight season he’s tallied 40-plus goals in a season. Under normal circumstances, a forward scoring 20 goals in a season is considered good returns, but of course, there is nothing normal about Messi.
The double against Manchester United served to put Messi into double figures for the Champions League. For the sake of comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo exited the competition with six goals, while the closest goal scorer still alive in the competition is Ajax’s Dusan Tadic, also sitting on six tallies. With a maximum of three matches remaining in the competition, Messi’s name may as well already be carved into that trophy.
In La Liga, Messi is sitting on 33 goals, which puts him considerably out of reach of the trio of Premier League forwards sitting on 19 goals, Fabio Quagliarella’s 22-goal resurgence in Serie A and Robert Lewandowski’s 21 goals to lead the Bundesliga. The only valid threat to Messi in the race for the European Golden Shoe, which is handed out annually to the top league scorer in Europe, comes via Kylian Mbappe’s 30 goals in Ligue 1. Still, Messi holds a healthy lead on the young Frenchman despite the 20-year-old’s hat trick against Monaco on Sunday.
Add in Messi’s 19 assists across all competitions, which are better than any other player in Europe, and any argument against the Martian that claims to be from Rosario being the best player in Europe—ahem, the universe—during the 2018-19 campaign is dead on arrival.
With Messi taking the reins as captain for the first time, Barcelona has La Liga all but secured with a nine-point lead and only five matches remaining. A likely win over Valencia at the end of May in the Copa del Rey final would give the Blaugrana yet another domestic double.
"Last season was very good because we won the cup and La Liga but the Champions League sticks in our throat, especially given the way we were eliminated," Messi told the crowd at Camp Nou in his captain's address to start the 2018-19 season.
Seven months after publicly setting his sights on recapturing the Champions League, Barcelona's captain has carried his side and plowed his way into the club's first Champions League semifinal since 2015. That year, Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez memorably combined to win the club’s second European treble.
Into the final four in Europe and with Messi regularly hovering above the other 21 players on the pitch, oddsmakers have decided Barcelona is the favorite to win Europe's grandest prize, with Liverpool second on the list. The La Liga trophy is already on the bus to Barcelona, while the Copa del Rey trophy is seemingly waiting to be picked up, so a historic third European treble is within touching distance for Barcelona.
Of course, it would also be the third European treble for Messi, who would be all but guaranteed to go on to collect his sixth Ballon d’Or—notably, his first since 2015. And yes, that would put him one above Ronaldo and add another chalk mark in favor of Messi in the interminable debate.
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