UEFA Champions League: Lionel Messi, Barcelona's 21st Century Dixie Dean

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UEFA Champions League: Lionel Messi, Barcelona's 21st Century Dixie Dean
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Messi in action against Shakhtar

With a 5-1 lead coming out of the first leg of their Champions League tie at the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s quarterfinal visit to the Ukraine on Tuesday to face Shakhtar Donetsk was never going to be a particularly troubling or significant affair. In the end, a 1-0 victory saw the Catalans progress comfortably and set up a likely semifinal date with arch rivals Real Madrid.

While the result itself was of little significance, the identity of the goal scorer was altogether more important if a touch unsurprising.

Lionel Andres Messi scored his 48th goal in 46 appearances this season, beating the Spanish record set by Ronaldo in 1996-97 (47 in 49) and equalled by Messi himself last year. What’s more, Barcelona have potentially 11 more fixtures to play and, if he continues at the current astonishing rate, he will reach 60 goals.

To put Messi’s feat into perspective, the goals record in English football is held by Dixie Dean, who scored 67 goals for Everton in the 1927-28 season, a record widely considered unbeatable. But, while Dean’s haul admittedly came in just 46 games, it was achieved during a period where huge goal tallies were routine—the previous season George Camsell had scored 59 in the league for Middlesbrough.

Defences were nowhere near as sophisticated or well-drilled in that period but even so, Dean’s numbers seem barely credible—like reading the results of a UEFA presidential election. That Messi could even be sharing the tens digit with him by the end of the season is mind-boggling.

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Messi, of course, is a million miles away from a player like Dixie Dean in terms of playing style and ability, but that the Barcelona man can combine the skill, poise and technique of masters like Diego Maradona and Johann Cruyff with such a relentless lust for goals elevates him to a level above anyone playing today.

Messi has been so frequently eulogised that it is almost pointless to praise him. Nearly everything that can be said about him already has been, however it is worth noting that the Argentine's mastery of close control is about as near as any player in the history of the game has come to perfecting any one skill (save, perhaps, Dean whose heading was the stuff of legend).

Messi’s control of the ball underpins everything he does. It is what enables him to run as quickly with the ball as without it. It is what allows him to manoeuvre so proficiently in tight spaces. And it is why he is able to time his finishing to perfection, as happened on Tuesday and has occurred on 47 other occasions this season. Not even the great Maradona utilised his mastery of the ball to such devastating effect as consistently.

But where the diminutive winger has truly excelled is in redefining our expectations of modern football.

Three seasons ago, Cristiano Ronaldo netted 42 times for Manchester United and we were bewildered. He was rightly lauded from all sides, the record talked about for weeks and he was soon transferred to Real Madrid for £80m. The reaction to Messi’s 48th goal was almost indifferent by comparison, particularly in the British press, its significance overshadowed by Manchester United’s elimination of Chelsea.

We are so desensitised to Messi’s brilliance now that when he fails to perform sublimely for even half a game it is a shock. Just five years ago what he has achieved would have been dismissed as impossible. Not just the goals, but the trophies and individual awards too. It is testament to how far he has raised the bar that if he were to score say 30 goals next season, then it would be regarded as a poor season by his standards.

Even for a player of his ethereal talents, 60 goals in a season would be a truly remarkable feat. And few would bet against him reaching the landmark at Wembley on 28 May.

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