x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Barcelona's Lionel Messi is more than just a team player

Another weekend, another victory for Barcelona, another Lionel Messi hat-trick.

Another weekend, another victory for Barcelona, another Lionel Messi hat-trick. Atletico Madrid were the vanquished visitors in front of another huge 90,000-plus crowd at Camp Nou on Saturday, with Messi again taking the plaudits to fire Barca to a 3-0 victory.

Barca fans are used to brilliance, but none have seen what they are watching now on such a consistent basis. There is a predictability to this side's power; fans arrive duly expecting to see every visiting team slain by a flurry of goals.

Cules (the fans) do not get behind the players because they do not need to - the team do all the work and the crowd has taken to performing Mexican waves on a weekly basis.

Barca are a team packed with stars and Spanish World Cup winners. They are confident without being arrogant. They do not brush away talk of winning the treble this season because they firmly believe they can do it. And with Messi in their midst, who can blame them?

The television highlights programmes from Saturday will show Messi's goals, the deft touches with his new luminous orange football boots.

They might show him making surging runs behind the Atletico defence, but to illustrate his all-round prowess, they should show how he out jumped the opposing defence to power a header towards the visiting goal.

Or how he sprinted back from the half-way line to the edge of his own 18-yard-box and won the ball from Sergio Aguero and the Brazilian Filipe, before dribbling out of danger.

Aguero, Messi's hugely talented Argentine international teammate, was made to look a fool. Maybe Messi, whose relationship with his countrymen and his performances for the national team have long been under scrutiny, was trying to prove a point.

While at Barca, Samuel Eto'o maintained that attack was the first line of the defence. The current team are magical exponents of that theory, but they are not all expected to run back to their own box as Messi did.

Barca's No 10 has now scored 24 league goals from 19 starts this season. In just half the 38 league games, he has already netted a figure which would have been enough to lift the Pichichi - Spain's top scorer award - in three different seasons since the Millennium.

His own 34 league-goal record for last term - the same tally which Ronaldo, the Brazilian forward, managed during one prolific season at Barca in 1996/97 - is under threat. As is the league's 38-goal record, held jointly by the legendary Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra and Hugo Sanchez, the former Real Madrid frontman.

Zarra, the Basque, was Spain's top scorer on six occasions between 1945 and 1953 and managed 38 goals in 1950/51. The only other player to hit 38 was Real Madrid's Sanchez, from Mexico, in 1989/90 and it is from Real's ranks that Messi's greatest challenge comes this season.

Another Ronaldo - Cristiano - Real's Portuguese talisman, has scored 25 so far and netted twice in the 4-1 triumph over Real Sociedad at the Bernabeu on Sunday. The pair are a massive 11 clear of Barca's David Villa in third.

Five of Ronaldo's strikes were penalties to Messi's two, but Messi is far more than a goal-scorer. He has made more assists (14) than any of his teammates and more than twice Ronaldo's six. He is a team player in every sense of the word, someone who teammates admire and respect rather than envy and seek to emulate.

His partnership with Villa is only five months old, but it is devastatingly effective, with the less lauded Spaniard more likely to cut inside from the wing and shoot, while many of Messi goals come from more central positions.

Barca can also hit from either side of the pitch, with Pedro on the other wing. Backed up by a peerless midfield, it is obvious why they are clear favourites to win every competition they have entered this season.

sports@thenational.ae