MADRID (Reuters) - When Lionel Messi pulled on the captain’s armband in the 63rd minute of Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Rayo Vallecano in March, it was the first time since his 2004 debut he had led the Spanish champions in a La Liga game.
Andres Iniesta’s substitution meant the Argentine World Player of the Year, still only 25, was the most senior player on the pitch, and leadership responsibility was a new asset to his game to add to the incredible goalscoring exploits that have propelled Barca to a fourth La Liga title in five years.
The talismanic forward, who became a father for the first time in November, has become the undisputed reference point for a Barca team in a way that was perhaps only rivalled by former club greats Johan Cruyff, Ladislao Kubala or Josep Samitier.
Time and again this season he has rescued the team with crucial goals and his spectacular tally of 46 from 31 appearances - almost half Barca’s total of 105 - means he is close to matching his record haul of 50 set last term.
Messi’s list of records was already impressive enough but one of his recent achievements is truly breathtaking.
After a double in a 4-2 victory at Real Mallorca in November, he went on to net 30 goals in the following 18 matches, the first player to score against all of Barca’s La Liga rivals in consecutive games.
A hamstring injury sustained in the Champions League then sidelined him for three matches but he came off the bench to score in a 2-2 draw at Athletic Bilbao on his return and netted twice as a substitute in a 4-2 success at home to Real Betis last weekend.
Messi also made headlines at the end of December after setting a new record of 91 for the most goals in a calendar year, beating the previous best of 85 set by former Germany and Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller in 1972.
“He is an incredible footballer, a giant who is both a nice person and a professional,” said Mueller who was known as ‘The Torpedo’.
Messi’s only defect was he did not play for Bayern, added the German.
Messi’s hopes of winning a fifth straight World Player of the Year award may have been dented by Barca’s humiliating exit from the Champions League at the hands of Bayern this month.
Yet to fully recover from the hamstring strain, he had to watch from the bench as the Bavarians romped to a 3-0 second-leg victory that put them through to the final 7-0 on aggregate, Barca’s biggest ever European defeat over two legs.
Messi has been top scorer in Europe’s elite club competition for the past four seasons but this term ended four goals behind Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo who tops the standings with 12.
Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski has 10 ahead of the final between Bayern and Dortmund at Wembley on May 25.
The debate over whether Messi is the best player of all time will rage on and perhaps will only be settled if he achieves what soccer greats Pele and Diego Maradona managed with Brazil and Argentina respectively - winning the World Cup.
Doubts are sometimes raised about whether Messi would be so prolific if he did not play alongside Barca team mates like Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas and there is certainly nobody of that calibre in the modern Argentina team.
His 12 goals for his country in nine appearances in 2012 equalled the national record held by Gabriel Batistuta and he has the ideal stage to cement his status as the game’s greatest when Brazil host the World Cup in 2014.
The good news for Barca is they should be able to rely on Messi’s services for many years to come while Ronaldo could decide to quit Madrid at the end of this season.
In February, Messi extended his contract until the end of June 2018.
Editing by Justin Palmer