Will Barcelona's Lionel Messi Eclipse Maradona?

Lionel Messi is always ranked amongst the pantheon of great footballers, but with the possibility of another ten years playing the game, can the Argentian surpass Best, Cruyff, Pelé and Maradona?
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I always felt the gods had smiled on me when, red and white scarf warming my young neck, I paid regular visits to Old Trafford to witness the prodigious talents of a footballer so aptly named Best. Sadly, I learned a cruel and early lesson in how the good things in life often prove to be ephemeral when Gorgeous George went into terminal decline at a tragically early age.

Fast-forward some four decades and you find thousands of similarly awestruck Catalan young'uns congregating at the Camp Nou to contemplate the omnipotence of Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Week in, week out, they delight in their sense of anticipation when the Argentine has the ball and watch in rapture as his slippery skills bamboozle innumerable hapless defenders. Never will they forget that Copa del Rey semi-final of four years ago when Messi jinked past the entire Getafe team to provide a carbon copy of compatriot Diego Maradona's only legal goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England.

Happily for those of us who despaired to see the waning of Best's enormous talent, the modest Messi is unlikely to disappoint his young admirers. He appears disinterested in serial-dating a posse of Bunny Girls or notching his name on the bedheads of a platoon of Miss Worlds. He prefers not to splash a portion of his enormous wealth on acquiring the odd night club or boutique. Most pleasingly, the diminutive twinkletoes has yet to fall prey to the temptations of demon alcohol. Praise the Lord, Messi seems a wonderfully boring young man who lives only for the beautiful game, leaving his adoring fans safe in the knowledge that their hero is no George Best and they can adore him for a long time yet.

Yet you'd think that Messi too was living on borrowed time as he appears hell-bent on bettering every feat in the record books. Hold your horses, Leo! You're only 24, surely too young to start eclipsing the aforementioned Belfast Boy and other greats like Pele, Maradona and Johan Cruyff?

It could be as long as a decade away before the Rosario-born superstar who boasts over 26 million Facebook followers hangs up his boots. The mind boggles about what he will have achieved by then

But, playing as if there was no tomorrow, Messi has already raced to three Champions League winners' medals, scoring in the past two finals against United, together with five Spanish league titles, one Copa del Rey, one Club World Championship, two European and five Spanish Supercups. He has won the past two editions of the Ballon d'Or and has received such a vast array of Golden Shoes, Boots and assorted other footwear that he could easily open a Barcelona branch of Dolcis. Needless to say, Messi looks a shoe-in (there we go again!) to repeat last year's World Player of the Year.

Messi's latest landmark came on Tuesday when he scored a hat-trick against Viktoria Plzen to take his tally to 202 in only his eighth season with Barcelona. He now stands just 33 goals shy of the club record achieved by the late Spanish international centre-forward, Cesar Rodriguez, from 1939-55.

Compare Messi's current total with Brazilian ace Ronaldo, who at the same age, had managed the trifling sum of 153 goals. Admittedly, Cruyff had scored a magnificent 229 goals in his first eight seasons with Ajax when he too had reached the age of 24. But that leaves Messi with the remaining seven months of the season to add another 28 and surpass the Dutch master. And who would argue against that?

Tuesday's match against the Czech side was also Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola's 200th at the helm. During these 40 months, Guardiola's team has recorded the bewildering sum of 500 goals in all competitions, with Messi scoring an extraordinary 160 of them. In the 99 Champions League games, the Pulga Atómica (the Atomic Flea) has netted 34 times, making him the competition's top scorer in each of the past three seasons.

It could be as long as a decade away before the Rosario-born superstar who boasts over 26 million Facebook followers hangs up his boots. The mind boggles about what he will have achieved by then. How many goals will he have bagged? How many tons of individual and team silverware will he have lifted? Will he have continued to be a one-club man or will he have joined Manchester City for the world record sum of a billion pounds?

While acknowledging the talents of perhaps his closest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, one thing is sure. Messi is the finest player of his generation. While doubts persist about how much he benefits from the increased protection referees now afford ball-players, Messi is still on the fast track to becoming the greatest player of all time.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @smackeymadrid

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