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How Much Longer Does Barcelona's Lionel Messi Have at the Very Top?

Jason Pettigrove@@jaypetti1971Contributor IJanuary 28, 2015

Lionel Messi still has years left at the top level.
Lionel Messi still has years left at the top level.Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

Lionel Messi has enthralled football fans worldwide over the last decade, with his unique style of play and high quality of output.

Still just 27 years of age, the Argentine already has a trophy cabinet so full that he could arguably finish his playing career tomorrow and still be considered as one, if not the best to have ever played the game.

In any event, he is playing himself back into somewhere approaching his best form as he looks to rekindle the successes of his early Blaugrana career.

His motivation is clear for all to see.

Already the highest scorer in the history of La Liga, the Champions League and El Clasico, he is just three assists away from taking the mantle of most assists in La Liga history from Luis Figo.

His brace at Elche marked the seventh consecutive season that he has scored 30+ goals.

MisterChip (English) @MisterChiping

ELC 0-3 FCB (75') - Messi scores 30 official goals for Barca for the SEVENTH consecutive season (started the streak in 2008-09)

Records keep on tumbling at the hands of Barca's No. 10 but still Lionel Messi has unfinished business to take care of.

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It's difficult to comprehend his numbers because even at this stage, they are as good as, if not better than anyone else that has played or is playing the game.

MCFC @Zas_MC

Messi breaks the record of legendary Ferenc Puskás to become the only player to score 20+ goals for 7 consecutive seasons in La Liga.

You can imagine it's possible for Messi to almost break any record he chooses before hanging up his boots at the elite level for the final time.

His role will likely evolve over the next few years in order for him to extract the absolute maximum game time possible at Barcelona, before a final last hurrah at Newell's Old Boys.

Presently, Messi shuttles somewhere between the right flank and the No. 9 position. A floating role that isn't clearly defined but suits Messi's wanderlust and skill set.

A mastery on the ball which is unparalleled, the electric bursts that are a feature of his game will need to be reined in as age begins to weary him.

WhoScored.com @WhoScored

Lionel Messi: Has now had a direct hand in 9 goals in his last 3 appearances in La Liga (6 goals, 3 assists)

His body, which takes a battering every week as it is, will not be able to cope with the demands of such a continuous and rigorous assessment.

It's not too long ago when a succession of injuries saw an extended period on the sidelines for the Argentine, and many questioning if we had seen the best of Messi at that point.

Per Rob Devine of Metro, even his old club boss Gerardo Martino, told reporters at a news conference when Argentina played two friendly matches in England towards the back end of 2014 that:

Any comparison with the two-to-three-year period in which he was at his best [is unfair]. It’s very difficult to get back to that sort of level after so long.

I don’t know if we’ll have the chance to see it happen.

To write him off when he is essentially still at his peak is a little churlish and premature to say the least.

Certainly his influence appeared to wane during the early part of 2014, Pete Jenson of the Daily Mail just one to quote the headlines screaming in Spain that Messi had only run a kilometre more than goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto in Barca's Champions League defeat to Atletico Madrid.

Yet Messi still rifled in 41 goals and 14 assists in 46 games for the Blaugrana last term. Hardly the sort of return for someone who's past it and doesn't want to involve themselves.

Khaled @BarcaStat

Messi's numbers from 2013-14 for club and country http://t.co/0U0wp4kejq #fcblive (via @MessiStats)

WhoScored.com also note that key passes from that period are at the same level of 2.4 per game to that which he is providing this season.

We only need to study his form from the beginning of this campaign to understand that his mojo has definitely returned. The defensive side of his game has improved, an average of 0.8 tackles per game Messi's best since 2009/10.

An extra workload in defence is compensated by Neymar's insatiable attacking appetite. A voracious need to score or create goals has very definitely lightened the load on Messi.

Finally.

If Luis Suarez can push on from a disappointing start to his Blaugrana career, then there's every reason to think that, eventually, a playmaking position slightly withdrawn from the front two, will allow Messi's attacking duties to become a little more peripheral.

Neymar has finally lightened the load, Luis Suarez needs to follow suit.
Neymar has finally lightened the load, Luis Suarez needs to follow suit.Siu Wu/Associated Press

A playmaking role that requires less running and as a consequence, less punishment on his ageing frame.

Guillem Balague of Sky Sports noted the change is already beginning to take place:

He has now taken a few steps back and you’re more likely to see him in the number 10 position.

He’s not just a number 10 because he appears everywhere, but he is enjoying his assists as much as his goals now. 

[...] It has taken a while to realise that a 27-year-old body is different to a 21-year-old body. This is an evolution that had been predicted by everybody around him, but he needed to see it and he needed to feel that’s what his body can give him.

After what happened at the World Cup – when perhaps his performances weren’t praised as much as he deserved because Argentina’s system didn’t benefit him at all – he has decided to take a couple of steps towards becoming the “new” Lionel Messi.

With that knowledge to hand, as long as Messi listens to his body and learns to rest as he begins to wind down his career at the top level, then some longevity is assured.

So often compared to his nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese shows no signs of slowing down and in just under a week he will turn 30, three years older than Messi. 

Xavi Hernandez still just about retains an interest in first-team matters despite having just turned 35. If Messi wants to be the conduit through which everything flows at Barca, then the Xavi role is where he should be looking to operate in the main.

If he stays injury free, then there is no reason why we can't get at least another seven years out of Barcelona's best-ever player.

Time flies. Enjoy him while you can.

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