For millions of adoring football fans the world over, Lionel Messi is the greatest of all time.
Barely a game goes by where he doesn’t produce some moment of excellence. His consistency is startling, his numbers incredible.
At club level he’s won everything, lifting the Champions League trophy on four occasions with Barcelona, and winning the La Liga championship nine times – the 10th is surely inevitable this season, too.
And for his home nation of Argentina Messi has been hugely important too; he played a significant role in steering the South American giants to the 2014 World Cup final (they were edged out in extra time by Germany). Argentina’s all-time top scorer, Messi has 65 goals in 128 appearances.
The 31-year-old has also collected a dazzling array of individual awards. The Fifa Ballon d’Or is the most highly regarded of the lot, and he’s won it five times (a record he shares with Cristiano Ronaldo, the self-regarding yang to Messi’s unshowy yin).
It’s Messi’s ongoing, everyday excellence that mark him out as the world’s greatest – but even for a footballing superhero, there have been standout performances. Here are those occasions when Leo was better than brilliant; so, so much better.
Barcelona 3 – 3 Real Madrid
It wasn’t a one-man show at the Camp Nou – but this was an indisputable reminder of just what a huge talent the 19-year-old Lionel Messi was. Ruud van Nistelrooy had pounced on a loose ball to open the scoring for the home side in the fourth minute, but Messi would equalise minutes later, the then 19-year-old unmarked as he received a pass from Samuel Eto’o, firing past Iker Casillas.
Van Nistelrooy would score a second from a penalty, after Guti was fouled. But the youthful Messi would impress again, reacting smartly to Casillas’ save from Ronaldinho’s close-range attempt; Messi powered the ball past the Real keeper to level the score once more.
It wasn’t enough; Sergio Ramos found the net to put the visitors in front for what would have been a famous away win against ten-man Barca (the home side had seen Olegur Presas sent off shortly before half-time). Instead, Messi sent a rocket into the far corner in the final minute of the game to score his first hat-trick for Barca; at the time of writing, he’s racked up 43 for the club…
Barcelona 4 – 1 Arsenal
Messi was already well established when, at the tender age of 22, the pint-sized forward swept North London’s finest aside here at the Camp Nou. With Pep Guardiola calling the shots on the touchline, Messi would score all four goals for the Catalan side, after Nicholas Bendtner had given the Gunners a surprise lead in the 18th minute.
It took Messi just two minutes to equalise, smashing his strike home from just outside the 18 yard box to bring Arsenal back down to earth. Two further goals would follow before half-time, Messi scampering through the defence for his second, courtesy of Pedro’s pass, before lobbing the luckless Manuel Almunia for his hat-trick.
In the second half, Messi signed off by dribbling past one defender, seeing his shot blocked by Almunia – and then recovering to drive the ball though the keeper’s legs. Afterwards, Arsene Wenger would marvel at the Argentine’s performance, telling reporters “he has six or seven years in front of him; he can reach unbelievable levels.”
May 2011 (Champions League final)
Barcelona 3 – 1 Man Utd
Undoubtedly more of a team performance, Barca had been by far the more threatening of the two sides here at Wembley, before Pedro scored the opener in the 27th minute. But Wayne Rooney would equalise in the 34th minute to give Manchester United fresh hope.
Step forward Lionel Messi. In the 54th minute, from around 25 yards out, Messi smashed a shot past the despairing Edwin van der Sar to re-establish Barca’s lead. David Villa would wrap things up in the 69th minute, Barcelona winning the trophy for the fourth time in their history (they’ve since won it again, in 2015).
With Messi having headed home the winning goal in the Champions League final two years earlier, again against Man United, Sir Alex Ferguson and co must have been sick of the sight of him. But for the watching millions this was thrilling stuff, with Messi the fulcrum of a sumptuous Barcelona side. The Argentinian was named man of the match.
Barcelona 7 – 1 Bayer Leverkusen
It was carnage at the Nou Camp for this Champions League encounter. Okay, Leverkusen weren’t the toughest opposition Barcelona have ever faced. But this Bundesliga side were torn apart in brutal style by Messi, who scored five of Barca’s seven goals!
It wasn’t just the quantity of goals that created such a stir, though. Opening the scoring with a finely weighted lob, gliding effortlessly past the opposition to find the net, or shaking off a harrying defender to chip in for a third, these were goals to savour.
It was the first time Messi had scored five in a competitive game; the first time anyone had scored five in a Champions League game. Wayne Rooney acclaimed the performance by calling him “the best player ever”. Leverkusen coach Robin Dutt went further, calling him a player from “another galaxy”.
In truth, it was just Messi doing what Messi always does – only more so. Plenty would argue he is the most exceptional footballing talent ever. Salut, Lionel!
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