Goal.com 50: Lionel Messi (1)

The young Albiceleste and Blaugrana star stands head and shoulders above them all...
1. LIONEL MESSI (Barcelona & Argentina)

Lionel Messi is Goal.com's top player of the 2008-09 season!

The runner-up of the inaugural Goal.com 50 has climbed to the summit after his finest season to date, and one in which he cemented his reputation as one of the most skilful performers on the planet.

Yet his mesmerizing ability was never truly in doubt: all that was lacking was silverware to truly propel Messi to the summit.

Trophies in Catalunya are like buses in Britain: you wait for ages, then three come along at once. And Messi was at the centre of each of them.

But the tale begins last summer in far Beijing, where a tired Messi overcame a season's worth of fatigue to help Argentina to the gold medal at the Olympic Games, scoring two goals along the way and playing in the final.

Having got through the summer largely unscathed, things augured well for the Albiceleste hero, but it could all have been so different. It is barely remembered now, but Barcelona and Argentina were involved in an undignified scrap over the player's taking part in the Games, with the side otherwise in disarray due to the presidential election around Joan Laporta.

A 1-0 loss to Numancia for the Blaugrana on opening day had the alarm bells ringing, but as quickly as the 'crisis' at Camp Nou started, it ended. Messi, of course, was to be key in changing things around.

Hints that the lion was awakening came as Messi netted twice and otherwise looked decent against Sporting Gijon, and the same followed in the dismantling of Atletico Madrid in yet another 6-1 win.

The best was yet to come, though, as Messi netted in the very last minute at Camp Nou in the Clasico in December, the action being described in Goal.com LIVE commentary thus:

"GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLL! GOL GOL GOL GOL GOL! IT'S MESSI! WHAT A FINISH! Madrid threw everyone forward, leaving Henry wide open on the right. He played a perfect ball to Messi, who showed incredible composure to control and then chip it perfectly into the net. 2-0, GAME OVER!"

It was game over, in all senses. Not only did it seal a revenge Clasico victory, but it was the beginning of the end for Madrid's title challenge. Sure enough, Barca may have stumbled a bit after that, but with an uninjured Messi in full flight, the title was the Blaugrana's.

Of course, one cannot neglect to mention the other Clasico that season: the record-breaking 6-2  win at the Santiago Bernabeu. Madrid fans may wish to look away, but those with a fondness for Messi will love to reminisce on his player rating:

"Messi 9 - Helped to turn the tide of the match with that opening assist, and it was all one way from there as the youngster enjoyed a fine evening. A classic."

And all the while, he was turning it on in Europe, too.

In fact, just a few days prior, Messi's partner-in-crime, Andres Iniesta, had netted a late, great goal to put the Blaugrana through to the Champions League at the expense of Chelsea. But were it not for Messi, it wouldn't even have got to that stage: think back to his show-stopping performance in the 4-0 rout of Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, and of course that goal against Lyon in the previous round, one that would have had even Juninho gazing in wonder:

"Messi 8 - Started quietly, but then decided to roll up his sleeves. What a third goal. If you didn't see it, just one word will describe it for you: Messi-esque. Calm on the ball even under pressure."

But it was against Bayern that Manchester United, the finalist opponents, learned the true measure of their foe:

"Messi 9 - A cool, cool finish and great positioning for the first goal. Left Lell looking for dead and should have won a penalty before adding a poacher's goal. A dazzling delight."

Sure enough, Messi was in Rome, and he was in form. Samuel Eto'o scored the early opener, but it was a fitting end to a world-class season for Leo as he netted the second and sank United once and for all - with a header, no less!

"IT'S 2-0 FOR BARCELONA!!! IT'S LIONEL MESSI WITH A CRUCIAL HEADER!!! Carles Puyol came forward and the ball eventually found Xavi, 20 yards from goal, at the edge of the box. Xavi let in a sumptuous cross for Messi, who had peeled away from Ferdinand! He guided a wonderful touch on target and beat van der Sar with a fine effort! What a time to score!"

Indeed, that goal was, is, and will remain iconic. The diminutive Argentine - the boy whose earliest days at a footballer saw him too short to even get a proper kick on the ball - towered as a titan above Rio Ferdinand and placed the header with the accuracy of a man destined for the absolute top of his game.

There was no denying that over the course of the season Messi had deserved his goal, and his third club trophy.

And now, yet another individual accolade.

Congratulations to Lionel Messi, the Goal.com 50 winner 2008-09!

2008-2009 HONOURS

UEFA Champions League 2008-09
La Liga 2008-09
Copa del Rey 2008-09

Olympic Games 2008

UEFA Champions League Top Scorer 2008-09
Trofeo Alfredo di Stefano 2008-09

Ewan Macdonald, Goal.com