Messi just eight goals away from striking down Müller's record


CHAMPIONS LEAGUE:With two controlled swings of the deadliest left foot in soccer, Lionel Messi moved two steps closer to breaking a 40-year-old goal-scoring record that, until recently, looked as if it would never be challenged.

Messi’s contributions not only helped Barcelona maintain their unbeaten start to the Spanish league season – his two goals setting up Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Real Zaragoza – but also propelled him to within seven goals of matching Gerd Müller’s world record for goals in a calendar year.

Müller, the great striker who won a World Cup, European Championship and four West German titles during his career with West Germany and Bayern Munich, scored 85 goals in 1972. Messi, with a maximum of eight matches left in 2012, has 78.

His most recent strikes were typical Messi goals, if there is such a thing for a player with such a broad range of skills and few obvious flaws. The first goal came after he exchanged passes with his team-mate Jordi Alba, before taking a perfect touch and almost casually clipping the ball into the net. For his second, which came after assisting Alex Song on Barcelona’s second goal, Messi made a difficult skill look simple, curling the ball into the net from 20 yards .

As Messi, the 25-year-old Argentina forward, closes on Müller’s record, it is fair to ask whose achievement is greater? In terms of the number of games needed to reach the milestone, Messi – whose appearance on Saturday was his 61st of the year – has already exceeded Müller’s 60 matches from 1972.

If Messi requires until his final match – a league game at Real Valladolid on December 22nd – to break Müller’s record, it will have taken him nine more matches to surpass Müller, who was also in his mid-20s when he set the mark.

Not straightforward

But it is not as straightforward as suggesting that the number of appearances alone prove Müller’s achievement was the more impressive, particularly because 12 of his goals in 1972 came in an obscure and short-lived competition, the DFB-Ligapokal – or German League Cup.

With the Olympic Games in Munich that year, the start of the 1972-73 Bundesliga season was delayed until mid-September, so the league cup was created to fill the gap and provide teams with competitive matches to help generate income.

Bayern Munich did not initially take the competition seriously, sending out a weaker team in their opening match, with most of the teams superstars – Müller included – absent. This enraged a crowd of 10,000, who had paid to watch Bayern’s celebrated first-team players. A photographer even filed a fraud lawsuit against the club.

So for the rest of the inaugural competition Bayern picked their star players and Müller scored 12 goals in five games, including four goals against the second-division regional league team, Hof (The DFB-Ligapokal was scrapped after the first year and not reintroduced until 1997, when it was played as a preseason competition before being abolished again in 2007.)

Strength of schedule is one factor in the difference between the totals of Messi and Müller. But there is also the issue of the globalisation of the top European leagues. While Müller scored 13 goals at international level and 11 in European club matches in the European Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, 42 of his strikes in 1972 came in 34 Bundesliga matches at a time when the top soccer talent was spread a lot more thinly across the world.

Supporting cast

So far this year, Messi has scored 50 goals in 33 games in the elite competition that is the Spanish league. So while he has the help of a world-class supporting cast – notably the midfield combination of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez – he also regularly comes up against some of the game’s best defenders. Of his other 28 goals, Messi has scored 12 for Argentina, including a hat-trick against Brazil in a friendly match in June; 11 in the Champions League; three in the Spanish Cup; and two in the Spanish Super Cup.

Drawing comparisons between eras is never an exact science, though, and Messi and Müller have much in common, namely their ability to score often. Both have been the leading scorer in the European Cup (now the Champions League) four times.

18 goals in eight games

In March, Messi joined Müller, now 67, as the 11th player to have scored five times in a single European Cup or Champions League match.

That feat, which Messi accomplished in a 7-1 victory against Bayer Leverkusen, came in the middle of an 18-goal scoring run over eight games, including four goals against Valencia and three against Granada.

Despite his lack of bulk, the 5ft 7in Messi bullies defenders with his grace and unrivaled close control of the ball, which at times make it appear as if the ball is glued to Messi’s feet. By contrast, Müller was a squat and powerful 5ft 9in.

The cleverness of Messi’s play is matched by a lethal accuracy in front of goal; Messi, who scored only one goal in his first 14 games for Barcelona, now regularly shatters scoring records.

In addition to his five Spanish championships, three Champions Leagues titles and numerous individual awards, Messi has already smashed Müller’s record of 67 goals in a single European season – scoring 73 times during the 2011-12 season. He is also Barcelona’s career scoring leader.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova recently said of Messi:

“His goal tally is spectacular. It takes other great players seven or eight seasons to score the amount of goals he scores in one season.”

But for all the records, there is one left to break. With eight more goals in his final eight games, Messi can achieve perhaps the ultimate goal-scoring feat, starting today against Spartak Moscow.

New York Times

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