Unless you've living been on Mars or under a rock for the past five years, you've certainly heard of Lionel Messi: the most talented player of the current generation of footballers and a player whom many tip to become Maradona's heir as the best player of all-time.
Messi might be only 23, but these expectations are more than legitimate: Messi brought them upon himself. The Argentine genuis has been marvelling football fans worldwide ever since he became a full-time pro. In fact, Messi has been in the Fifa Player of the Year top 20 in each of his full years as a pro player: 20th in 2006, second in 2007 and 2008 and winner in 2009. This year, he is a top contender for the award once again, even though Xavi and Iniesta are more likely to take in theory. To sum up, Messi has ALWAYS been at the top.
To make matters even more impressive, 2007 and 2008 years were trophiless years for Barcelona and low-scoring, injury-plagued years for Messi. Still, he managed to be second in the FIFA award on both occasions, nearly beating Cristiano Ronaldo (who had had the best seasn of his life) in the 2008 race. Just imagine if Messi hadn't picked up so many injuries or if Barcelona had picked up silverware... Messi would probably have two more Golden Balls in his pocket by now(he'll certainly get many more in his career, though).
If Messi was already arguably the best in the world, Guardiola's appointment as Barcelona's manager took his game to a whole new level. Guardiola & Leo was truly a match made in heaven. Under Pep, Messi has scored a disbelieving 102 goals, along with 38 assists, in 119 matches. He has basically created 140 goals in 119 matches!
In 2008/2009, he was part of one of the best attacking trios ever with Thiery Henry and Samuel Eto'o. He led the team in scoring with 38 goals and assisted 18 as he led Barcelona to a glorious season and an unprecedented sextuple!
In 2009/2010, with Eto'o gone, Henry dipping in form and Ibrahimovic proving to be a flop, Barcelona became even more reliant on Messi for goals and Leo stepped up, scoring 47 goals in all competitions, thus equaling Ronaldo's record set on 1996/1997 (which is impressive, considering that, unlike the Brazilian, Messi isn't an out-an-out striker).
This season, despite an early injury, he already has 17 goals and six assists in only 15 matches, and the best might be yet to come. His own 47-goal record might actually be beaten by Messi this season.
We can't forget that Messi is only 23 and can only improve. He's a better, more complete today than he was a year ago. His passing, his playmaking skills, his free-kicks, his goalscoring instincts... he has been improving on every aspect of his game, making fans believe that by the time he reaches his peak he might become the best and most complete player in history.
It's still too soon to make such a statement, but there's no doubt that Messi is on the right path. During these five years as a pro, he has always mantained a very high level, but some of his performances have just been otherwordly. In 2006, still a teenager, Messi scored a hat trick in El Classico at Camp Nou to salvage a 3-3 draw. That performance confirmed what everyone at Barcelona knew since Messi was just a youth player: Leo really is a very special player.
In the past two seasons, under Pep Guardiola, setting the world on fire has become a routine for Messi. Among many otherwordly performances, his four goals against Arsenal at Camp Nou in last season's quarter-finals of the Champions League is perhaps the most famous. After that match, pundits all around the world started discussing Messi's place among the all-time greats and comparisons with Maradona became even more regular. On the receiving end of the Messi show, Arsène Wenger was forced to hail Lionel Messi as the best player of this generation.
Right now, there's no doubt that Messi is the best in the world by a very large distance. From Arsène Wenger to Arjen Robben, everyone in the football world acknowleges Messi's unmatched talents. The challenge for Messi is to keep motivated despite the absence of rivals (given Messi's love for football and for the club, it's safe to assume that he will) and work his way to eternal greatness.
Having achieved almost everything with Barcelona, his challenge now will be to lead Argentina to glory, while doing the same with Barcelona. At 23 years old, the sky is the limit for Lionel Messi! Let's hope he reaches it...