Pitchside Europe

More, more, more for magical Messi


View photo

It was the morning after the night before. The Barcelona players had arrived back from Seville at 2am on Monday, all smiles as they left their plane after seeing Lionel Messi break Gerd Mueller's record of 85 goals in a calendar year with a brace against a well-organised Real Betis.

It may be a contrived statistic which most in Germany hadn't heard of until recently, but it made headlines around the world. Messi breaks goalscoring records by the week, but scoring more goals in a year than any other player was big news.

Most of the players had gone to bed at 3am, waking with their families at 8am, if not before. Five of the Barcelona team including Messi have recently become fathers, with more babies on the way from the partners of Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas.

By 10am, most of the players were training again, all long sleeves, gloves and tracksuit bottoms. Coach Tito Vilanova is less intense than Pep Guardiola, the man he replaced, but there's little rest for Spain's best team so far this season. They have a Copa del Rey game tonight against Cordoba, another flight back south to Andalusia.

Under a leaden sky at the training ground, a gaggle of fans wait outside the gate by a wall filled with adoring messages for the players. The crowds swell in the summer and security is needed to control them, but Barca are often not even in their home city at this time of the year. In 2006, 2009 and 2011, Barcelona headed off to the Club World Cup, but that honour goes to Chelsea in 2012, the team who knocked them out of the Champions League last season.

On the ground, former Barca star Gabri pops in to see his old team-mates, while staff who didn't travel to Seville shake hands with Messi and congratulate him on beating Mueller's record. Those who were on the team plane congratulated him in person, through the media and on Twitter. Pique described him as "supernatural" and "without limits", adding that we "should enjoy every minute we have with him."

Messi is embarrassed by the fuss. All he wants to do is have a ball at his feet. Nothing has changed since he was three years old and those who train with him insist that he's exactly the same every day, as determined to win four-a-side games as he is real matches.

He doesn't have to play in the cup game tonight and Barca will use the game against the second tier side to blend emerging talents like Martin Montoya, Cristian Tello, Oier and Jonathan dos Santos with established ones. But Messi wants to play, wants to score more goals. He wants to put distance between him and Mueller.

He has three games to do that before the year is out, the Cordoba match, a huge game against second placed Atletico Madrid on Sunday and an away game at Valladolid. Then it will be the Ballon d'Or awards in January. More records, more awards. More, more, more. Messi is fortunate to be surrounded by so many good players, fortunate that he rarely gets injured, but he's a genius.

Barca fans are delighted for the best player they've ever seen and the Catalan papers are full of Messi glee. The front page of Sport has a picture of Messi with the words '23 goals. Cost €0'. Next to him is a picture of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonazalo Higuain and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid's three principal frontmen. They've managed 23 goals between them but at the cost of a combined transfer fee of 147 million euros. That's pointed out with delight.

Messi's 23 league goals so far this season would have been enough to win him the Pichichi award in seven of the seasons of the 1970s and five times in the 80s when legends such as Mario Kempes, Quini and Hugo Sanchez were Spain's goal kings. Yet their totals were after a full season. Barcelona have played just 15 of their 38 league games so far.

Messi's next target is that set by Dixie Dean, the legendary Everton striker who scored 60 goals in 1927-28. That's a record in Europe's top five leagues. Messi will never state his targets publicly, but the media always whip up another challenge for him to go for. Messi broke the Spanish record last season with 50 goals — twice as many as Ruud van Nistelrooy scored to become top scorer in 2007. If Messi continues at his current rate, he'll get 58 league goals this season. Still just 25, he's got plenty of time to break more records.

Messi didn't celebrate breaking Mueller's 40-year-old record with a night on the town. How could he with such a demanding schedule? No, he invited out his cousin Maxi Biancucchi, a winger with Olimpia in Paraguay, who is on holiday with him in Barcelona.

They shared a mate, a traditional drink of brewed herbs in southern South America, taken through a metal straw. Along with meat, mate is one of Argentina's most successful exports. But not the finest. That's undoubtedly Messi.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

Follow Andy Mitten on Twitter!

View comments (42)