Top Tenner: Lionel Messi's best Barcelona goals in La Liga
Now that Lionel Messi has finally broken the Spanish La Liga goal-scoring record, here are 10 of his best strikes from down the years.
Note: These are all, of course, goals scored only in La Liga.
Let us start at the beginning. Messi made his competitive debut for Barcelona in October 2004, coming on as a substitute for Deco against Espanyol, but was very much eased into the first-team -- making only one start in the rest of that season -- in a pointless Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk.
His first goal came as Barca were sashaying their way to the league title in May of that year, after coming on as substitute with just two minutes of a home game against Albacete remaining. Messi picked up the ball in that familiar left channel, played inside to Ronaldinho, who at that stage was very much a mentor to the younger man, and the Brazilian scooped the ball over the defence and into Messi's path.
Most other 17-year-olds might have snatched at the chance or perhaps tried to blast the thing, but as with many great players, what seems audacious to most others is instinctive to Messi, who casually lobbed Raul Valbuena in the Albacete goal. That made Messi Barca's youngest-ever goalscorer, one record that he wouldn't keep for very long, as one of the next bright young geniuses to emerge from La Masia broke it a couple of years later. Messi is now La Liga's record goal scorer, while Bojan Krkic is scrapping for a place in the Stoke side. Strange how life works out sometimes.
Of course, Messi can't do everything on his own, a point emphasised in both positive and negative aspects in this game. The negative comes because Barca lost 3-1 to Real Sociedad as Gerardo Martino's reign began crumbling around the Argentinean coach's ears, but the positive was the goal Messi scored, a beautifully worked team effort that would eventually prove to be only a consolation.
It began with Pedro, who cut in from the left and fed Messi, lurking as usual around 35 yards from goal, who controlled and span around in one fluid movement, quickly spreading the ball to Martin Montoya on the right. Montoya flicked a pass inside to Sergio Busquets, the holding midfielder doing a reasonable impression of a centre-forward, and he backheel-flicked the ball into Messi's path, who took a brief touch before slamming the ball into the corner of the net. Graceful simplicity.
If we must have the great Messi vs. Ronaldo debate, the two players can generally be separated into the categories of the subtle and the powerful, both thrilling to watch in their own way, and neither superior to the other. This is not to say both men are not capable of the other, as Messi displayed in a crazy game against Deportivo in 2012, which Barca won 5-4 and in which Messi scored another hat trick, the second an effort of sheer force from the edge of the box.
One of the beauties of watching top-level football is that occasionally these players who are infinitely superior to most of us in every possible physical way will do something that any Sunday league player will (specifically, take a touch, look up and just hammer the thing). That's what Messi did for his first goal in this game, having received a backheeled pass from Cesc Fabregas; he controlled, steadied himself, considered all the options available to him and then simply put his foot through the ball. While the destination of an effort like this is pot-luck at best for the Sunday leaguer, Messi's arrowed straight into the top corner.
Messi's turn of pace can be devastating, as displayed in this ruinously simple goal against Rayo Vallecano. One moment, Rayo had a corner, trying to force a goal at the Nou Camp, and 16 seconds later the ball was in their own net, after the ball was cleared and Messi chased onto a neat through-pass by David Villa, capping things off with the customary dinked finish, executed at high speed. In this game, sometimes your luck can change just that quickly.
It must be a tricky business commentating on Messi sometimes. It's a little like a Ph.D. student approaching Shakespeare: What else is there to say? What other superlatives can you possibly come up with that hundreds have not said before? Which is partly why, after this goal against Real Zaragoza, one commentator paused for a second and exclaimed: "You're just lost for words." Once more, Messi displayed a characteristic not typically associated with him (showing what a complete player he really is) and displayed great physical strength to hold off a young Ander Herrera before slipping one defender, leaving another chasing his tail and finishing things off with a powerful, low finish into the bottom corner.
One key element of the football "genius" is that they do things that others simply could or would not try -- something that we can all agree applies to Messi. In this case, in a game against Getafe, the ball broke to the Argentine on the edge of the area with seven defenders and a couple of his own teammates blocking the path to the net. Only a stroke of absolute luck or genuine brilliance would result in the ball passing between the posts, and Messi opted for the former. It's a goal that needs to be viewed from the angle behind the scorer to fully appreciate the curl and dip Messi put on the ball, which at one point of its flight path was heading 4 or 5 yards wide of the post.
Messi's goals generally display one or more of three defining traits: superhuman close control, sharp bursts of acceleration that take him past defenders in milliseconds, and inventive finishes that only a handful of other players could even conceive, let alone pull off. This goal combined all three. Bursting past one defender, somehow keeping the ball attached to his bootlaces to shift the thing past two defenders; most players would need to open their body to direct a shot into the far left corner, but Messi somehow managed to do so while remaining in the same position.
That Messi got plenty of whip and power on the ball without much back lift, simultaneously guiding it into the very bottom corner, is part of the reason goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz was beaten, but the Basque stopper was essentially surprised, flummoxed at the possibility of the shot. It's not that he wouldn't have expected a player to shoot from that position, but more that Messi timed it a brief moment or so before anyone else would have. So, by the time Iraizoz reacted, it was too late. The reaction of Cesc Fabregas, clasping his hands to his head in the same way that Bobby Robson did after that utterly absurd solo goal by Ronaldo against Compostela, tells you this was pretty special.
The typical Messi goal features a slaloming run of some description, but occasionally he takes a more straightforward route, as he did in this game against Atletico, who at that point were mere Champions League contenders rather than potential title winners.
A left-footed player taking a free kick from the left corner of the penalty area should in theory have only one option: to swing a cross over and hope for the best. Theories often don't apply to Messi, who instead picked the only square yard of the goal that he could possibly place the ball without the giant Thibaut Courtois getting to it and casually clipped it into exactly that spot. An outrageous piece of opportunism, placement and skill, it left one of the best goalkeepers in the world pawing at thin air in bafflement and, as an added bonus, won the game for Barcelona.
Messi hadn't managed a goal against Real Madrid before facing them on March 10, 2007, but by the end of the night he had three. This was perhaps Messi's first great act as a Barca player, equalising three times after a brace from Ruud van Nistelrooy and a Sergio Ramos header had thrice given Real the lead, among which was a red card for Barca defender Oleguer. Ten-man Barca defended stoutly for much of the game and had to rely on a moment or two of excellence from their precocious 19-year-old, and that's exactly what they got.
The first was a measured finish from about 8 yards, the second a slammed rebound after a Ronaldinho shot had been saved, but the third was the special one -- deep into injury time with his side trailing. Messi skipped around Ivan Helguera with a serpentine shimmy and absolutely smashed the ball past Iker Casillas to claim a point and begin his transformation from wunderkind to talisman.
A fair few of Messi's best goals have been scored outside La Liga. This phenomenon against Brazil was, quite obviously, for Argentina; this semi-solo effort, aided by only Sergio Busquets standing still when required to do so, was against Real Madrid in the Champions League; while the defining and arguably best goal, the one that earned him (yet more) comparisons with Diego Maradona, was in the Copa del Rey against Getafe.
However this one, against Sevilla in a league game during the 2011-12 season in which he recorded cartoon numbers -- 72 (seventy-two!) goals in all competitions for Barcelona and Argentina -- ranks up there alongside the best. All the elements of Messi are there, much like the Bilbao goal a year later: the burst of speed, the brilliant skill and the impudent, implausible finish, but it's not that this required more skill than all of the others on this list, or it was more spectacular, but it's perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing.
There's the short burst of raw acceleration, a sight to behold itself, then the nutmeg, which when subtly and correctly executed, is of course a joy; Messi leaving Sevilla defender Emir Spahic considering alternative career options once he escapes from this hole that's just opened up in the ground and swallowed him; and then there's the chip. There's just something about the way the ball hung in the air, briefly giving the impression that it might miss, a tease to defenders before they realise that, inevitably, of course it isn't going to miss. It's a bit like the part in most Bond films when it looks like 007 will almost certainly die, that there's no way he can escape this particular predicament, but, obviously, he finds some way of surviving in the end.
Messi has moments like that when it appears as if there's no possible way of succeeding, but he finds a way, leaving defenders and goalkeepers with that "Well, what exactly am I supposed to do?" look, ably modelled in this case on both the faces and the body language of Andres Palop and Fernando Navarro. What exactly are they supposed to do? Sometimes, it's simply not reasonable to expect any defence to stop Messi.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.