Lionel Messi is on course to top the only person he still hasn’t topped in soccer: himself.
Messi is probably the greatest footballer of all time. Any other player’s claim to that honor is, at best, arguable, which speaks to just how great the little man from Rosario has been since we first saw him. And now, at age 30, Messi might be playing out his most impressive season ever.
So, what defines Messi’s greatest season?
Back in 2011-12, Messi shattered records with a 50-goal La Liga campaign and 73 goals across all competitions. Messi walked on water that year, but that season was hardly a miracle. Back then, he had the help of greats like Dani Alves, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Alexis Sanchez, David Villa, Thiago Alcantara, and Pedro Rodriguez. That attacking and creative talent elevated Messi’s game.
Six seasons later, Messi can still score goals like the best of them, evidenced by his double against Girona on Saturday, but the current Barcelona side features a 33-year-old Iniesta, an admittedly underrated Paulinho, and Luis Suarez at age 31. Given the diminished supporting cast, the Argentine attracts more attention than ever before and cannot simply live in the final third and knock in goals as he once did. Instead, Messi drops deep into the midfield and launches the attack—and he still carries the burden of being the team’s top scorer. In the first leg of Barcelona’s Champions League knockout tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Barca clearly could not create chances like teams of the past . In short, Messi is doing more with less this season.
Following a 5-1 slaughter in the Super Cup to their rivals Real Madrid last August, Barca looked like a pile of ashes. Neymar was gone, Messi had not yet extended his contract, and the era seemed over. Instead, Messi rebounded from the Super Cup by scoring 11 goals in the next six games—all victories. The tally was up to 13 goals for the Argentine and a nine-match winning streak for Barcelona to start the season, including a 3-0 destruction of 2017 Champions League runner-up Juventus in this year’s group stage. Messi scored twice against the Italian giants and set Barcelona on its way to four wins and two draws to advance unbeaten into the knockout rounds.
In domestic play, Barcelona has a chance to become the first team in the modern 20-team era to go unbeaten in La Liga. Through 25 rounds of La Liga, the Catalan club has won 20 matches and drawn five. Added to that, Barcelona is already in the Copa del Rey final.
After a January signing, Coutinho finally arrived in Catalonia but can only provide domestic relief. The second most expensive footballer of all time, with a fee reported to be $142 million that could rise to $193 million with incentives, is charged with easing the pressure on Messi and Iniesta in pursuit of an unbeaten La Liga season over the final 13 rounds and a victory in the Spanish cup final.
While Coutinho will not be available for the second leg of the Champions League tie against Chelsea, the Blues’ chances of getting a win or even scoring a goal at the Camp Nou are remote, at best. At the Camp Nou—in the Champions League, Copa del Rey and La Liga—Barcelona is unbeaten in its previous 19 matches, with 17 wins and two draws and an aggregate score line of 58-7. Including the Spanish Super Cup, Messi has scored 20 goals and recorded eight assists in 19 home matches this term across all competitions.
As the season progressed, Suarez rounded into form and started knocking in goals. Paulinho proved to be a positive addition upon arrival, while Iniesta took a small sip from the fountain of youth. Perhaps more than anyone else, Sergio Busquets returned to his best form. Coutinho’s arrival helped balance the squad, while Dembele appears to be slowly integrating into the side. Still, Barcelona has relied on Messi to such an extent that he should probably get to claim them as a dependent on his taxes.
Through 25 rounds, Messi leads La Liga in both goals and assists and leads Europe in combined goals and assists, but what Messi is doing this campaign seems to stretch beyond simple stats. When it matters most, Messi’s turns up. When the start of the season looked like a sinking ship, Messi jumped in the captain’s seat and saved the vessel. After sending a message to Europe with his performance against Juventus, the Argentine personally delivered the telegram to Real Madrid by scoring a goal and setting up another in a 3-0 El Clasico thumping of the domestic rivals at the Santiago Bernabeu. Then, when Barcelona needed an away goal at Stamford Bridge, Messi ended his scoreless streak against Chelsea and found the back of the net.
At age 30, Messi is still amazing us with his brilliance on the ball, but this magical season has not been sufficiently praised. So, it bears repeating that the greatest club footballer of all time is playing out what could go down as the greatest and most impressive season of his professional career—and we’re lucky to be here to watch.