Count on Messi to keep adding to goal collection

Barcelona versus AC Milan. The goal is coming. Mathematically, it is imminent. A player with 60 goals in 50 matches in 2012-13 is unlikely to go more than four matches without a goal. Especially since it has not happened since 2010-11. Genius has its own unique law of averages.

The goal is coming. Maybe it is unavoidable because Neymar is playing alongside him, Neymar who is a twitching, lissome creature of pull-backs and backheels, Neymar who is stealing a few of his headlines. But this is the small man's team. Lionel Messi's team.

The small man rarely says much. He doesn't get barbers to cut his name into his hair, doesn't turn goal celebrations into egotistical displays and is not known for speaking of himself in the third person. These minor vanities don't interest Messi. Yet he likes winning and he particularly likes to be doing the winning.

The goal is coming. History tells us it is imminent because the great athlete in struggle is programmed to respond. Messi has had muscle injuries, he is missing matches, he is not a boy any more but a battered man of 26 whose legs can speak wearily of miles run and tackles worn. For Barcelona he has scored over 300 goals but all athletic rivers must eventually have relatively dry seasons.

Last calendar year he scored 79 goals for his club, this year 39. For most players 39 goals would be prefaced with "incredible", for Messi it is prefixed with "only". His greatest year may not have come yet - indeed the World Cup is looming - yet the irony of Messi is that as 30 slowly approaches, his worst enemy and hardest competition will be his younger self.

Yet for all that, Messi is stubborn, this is written into his psychological DNA. Authors with writer's block will keep scribbling. Footballers in minor droughts will keep running at defences, holding onto the truth that inspiration is born of work ethic. "This time," he says, "there have been two injuries really close together and that kind of impact you do notice." He says he is in search of "rhythm" and "tempo" and sounds like a dancer returning from a layoff.

The goal is coming because Messi is patient as he works for it. He and Neymar are a fascinating duet. The Brazilian is a slim, drifting, whisper of a man, who occasionally goes down if a defender exhales on him. The Argentine resembles a wind-up car that operates in short, frenetic bursts. If his pace suggests a shrunken battery, it may just be the temporary result of injuries.

Messi often suggests he inhabits a footballing time zone that is half a second ahead of everyone else. It might account for his clairvoyant passes. Two of them, one to Neymar, one to Xavi, are so neatly threaded and finely weighted that they almost stun the receivers of the passes into error. Still we wait for the goal and it is invariably worth any wait.

The goal is coming because of all football acts it is the purest articulation of Messi's self, it is the finest demonstration of his genius.

At his most profound, Messi is not trying to score a goal because his ego is bruised or because he wants applause. He wants to score because the goal for him is akin to a pianist composing a piece of music. This is who he is and it is what he does. Beethoven wrote symphonies, Messi scores goals. They are his notes, they are his route to expression.

Finally, he finds a goal but it is not the right goal, it is a penalty, which is too prosaic an offering to break this exaggerated drought with.

Something more special is needed and his second goal will be almost classical stuff. He passes to Cesc Fabregas, he receives the ball as he skips between two players, he feathers it into the net. It is tidy, it is satisfying.

In the hunt to comprehend Messi and the idea of inspiration, I came upon this quote from the French artist Eugene Delacroix. In 1824, he wrote: "What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."

If you translate this to football and Messi, it might suggest that what he has scored, and how he has scored them, is not sufficient for him. We do not know his physical condition, nor the numbers they will come in, but more goals are coming. This is inevitable.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


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