by Nick Wright
Lionel Messi's future has been thrown into doubt after he handed in a transfer request at Barcelona, with Manchester City hoping to clinch a sensational deal to reunite him with Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium ahead of the new season.
It would bring down the curtain on an extraordinary two-decades long stay at Camp Nou. As the saga continues, we reflect on the seven ages of Messi, from the thrilling breakthrough to the messy end of an era and possible next steps of arguably the greatest player of all-time...
The teen sensation
Lionel Messi runs on to Ronaldinho's pass, lets the ball bounce in front of him, and just as it seems he is lining up something more emphatic, he lifts a delicate finish over the advancing goalkeeper.
He is peeling away in celebration before the ball has even crossed the line, his fists wildly punching the air as he sprints towards the corner of the stadium. He looks like a child.
The goal, in the dying minutes of a 2-0 win over Albacete in May 2005, was the first of his senior career. The one that started it all. But Messi's extraordinary potential had long been known to everyone inside Barcelona.
It is what prompted a panicked club executive, fearful that he might slip through their fingers, to sign him on a restaurant napkin at the age of 12. It is why he was training with Ronaldinho and the rest only four years later, then scoring at a packed Camp Nou not long after that.
Messi excelled at academy level in between, a continuation of his performances for Newell's Old Boys in Argentina, where former coaches and team-mates remember a little phenomenon who ran rings around opponents and racked up hundreds of goals.
He produced similarly impressive scoring feats at Barcelona, receiving the growth hormone deficiency treatment his previous club could not afford and starring in a legendary youth side which included Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique.
That duo would have to wait for their chances. Not Messi.
Barcelona were a winning team at the time of his emergence from La Masia. There were back-to-back La Liga titles under Frank Rijkaard between 2004 and 2006. At the end of the second of those seasons, they won the Champions League for the first time since 1992.
Messi played no part in the final, a 2-1 win over Arsenal in Paris, due to a torn hamstring, but he was already becoming a prominent and popular figure in the first team.
Ronaldinho called him his "little brother". The fans adored him. His total of 17 goals in the 2006/07 campaign included a sensational individual effort against Getafe which was uncanny in its likeness to Diego Maradona's slaloming World Cup strike against England in 1986.
"So, you can copy a work of art after all," wrote Alfredo Relano in Spanish newspaper AS.
Messi's progress continued in the subsequent season but Barcelona's fortunes were on the wane.
Their consecutive La Liga titles were followed by second and third-placed finishes and they fell short in the cup competitions too.
Rijkaard's tenure was ending; Pep Guardiola's was about to begin.
The managerial change would prove significant for Messi.
The rise to superstardom
Guardiola wasted no time in overhauling the dressing room, removing Ronaldinho and Deco, among others, and placing Messi at the forefront of his plans.
The 21-year-old inherited the No 10 shirt and signed a lucrative new contract which made him the club's highest-paid player.
The changes did not end there.
Guardiola transformed the squad's approach to training and preparation and, in response to the repeated muscular injuries he had suffered in the preceding years, instructed Messi to follow a new approach to conditioning and nutrition.
The benefits were obvious. Messi would be practically ever-present over the course of the next four years and he was certainly instrumental in the treble-winning success of Guardiola's first season in charge, a season which culminated in Champions League glory over Manchester United in Rome.
Messi's goal in that final, a stunning header from a Xavi Hernandez cross which sealed the victory, took him to 38 for the season in all competitions and capped a phenomenal year.
But it was a tactical shift a few weeks earlier that would enable him to register the truly stratospheric numbers that followed.
That shift involved Messi moving from his usual role on the right-hand side of Barcelona's attack to the false nine position.
Guardiola had experimented with the approach earlier in the season, but only after using it against old foes Real Madrid did it become a blueprint he stuck to.
Messi destroyed Real Madrid that evening at the Bernabeu, wreaking havoc in the unoccupied space between their defence and midfield as Barcelona secured a famous 6-2 win.
He set up Thierry Henry's opening goal and scored two more himself. "We didn’t know what to do," reflected the Real Madrid centre-back Christoph Metzelder.
Some called it the best performance Barcelona had ever produced and there was no doubt about the identity of the player at the heart of it.
"Maradona, Cruyff and Best all rolled into one," is how one Spanish newspaper described Messi the next day.
It was from that moment that Messi went from being considered one of the best to thebest and his rise to superstardom was confirmed later that year when, still only 22, he won his first Ballon d'Or.
Messi had reached the top but it was just the beginning.
Under Guardiola, his goal totals rose every season.
Having hit 38 in 2008/09, he reached 47 in 2009/10 and 53 in 2010/11. Then, in 2011/12, he plundered a scarcely-believable total of 73 – the most by any player in European history.
The Ronaldo rivalry
Messi did not have a free run to the pinnacle of the game, of course. Every top player needs a rival and his was Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese arrived at Real Madrid from Manchester United in the summer of 2009 having beaten Messi to the Ballon d'Or in the previous year.
Messi had outshone him in the Champions League final a few weeks earlier, but Ronaldo was the world's most expensive player. A three-time Premier League winner and a bona fide superstar.
Their battle for superiority became a blockbuster storyline in La Liga, at times even eclipsing the rivalry between their clubs.
Records were shattered on a near-weekly basis. If one of them scored twice on a Saturday, the other would go out and match him on the Sunday. They pushed each other to previously unscaled heights.
Their differences only added to the intrigue. In one corner, Messi, the quiet introvert who was as much a provider of goals as a scorer of them. In the other, Ronaldo, the preening soloist known on occasion to react as angrily to goals scored by his team-mates as those scored by his opponents.
It was Messi who dominated their individual battle in those early years, following up his first Ballon d'Or with three more under Guardiola.
Even after the 2011/12 campaign, when Ronaldo had helped Real Madrid finally topple Barcelona from the summit of La Liga, the prize went to Messi. Jose Mourinho called the decision a "crime". Ronaldo had smashed 60 goals that season but his total, however remarkable, paled in comparison to Messi’s 73.
Ronaldo would hit back, of course, his extraordinary performances in the Champions League helping him win four out of five Ballon d'Ors between 2013 and 2017.
But Messi moved above his old rival again last year, winning the prize for the sixth time to Ronaldo's five, and any animosity between the pair has since been replaced by mutual respect.
"I pushed him, and he pushed me," reflected Ronaldo after departing Madrid for Juventus in 2018.
"It was a beautiful rivalry," added Messi. "I miss Cristiano in La Liga."
The greatest frontline ever?
While Messi's rivalry with Ronaldo continued throughout their time together in Spain, Barcelona – and specifically their attack – underwent considerable change.
Zlatan Ibrahamovic came and went. So too did David Villa and Alexis Sanchez. Eventually a new front three emerged.
In 2014, following the appointment of Luis Enrique, Luis Suarez arrived from Liverpool to be its spearhead. Messi on one side, Neymar on the other. 'MSN' was born.
Or at least, it was once Suarez had returned from a four-month ban for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the previous summer's World Cup.
Suarez's belated instalment up front saw Messi move back to the right flank, albeit with licence to drift inside, but his performances did not suffer. In fact that season was arguably his best yet.
It ended in another treble for Barcelona, with Messi scoring 58 goals in all competitions and Suarez and Neymar firing 25 and 39 respectively.
Barcelona had become a different beast, more direct than they were under Guardiola, more geared towards the counter-attack.
But who could argue with the decision to switch the emphasis from midfield to attack when that attack was capable of racking up a combined total of 122 goals over the course of a single campaign?
Suarez, intelligent in his movement and tireless in his work-rate, was the perfect foil for Messi and the Argentinian enjoyed a similarly strong understanding with Neymar.
Luis Enrique described them as the best front three in the history of the game. He was not alone in that view.
The trio continued their destruction for the next two years, hitting a combined total of 131 goals in 2015/16 and another 111 in 2016/17, but Barcelona exited the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in both seasons.
The triumvirate was broken up when Neymar completed his acrimonious transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017.
Messi dependencia takes hold
Barcelona had to adapt and so too did Messi.
They would go on to win consecutive La Liga titles under Ernesto Valverde having surrendered their crown to Real Madrid in 2017, but with Neymar gone, Suarez's output beginning to decline, and new signings Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho struggling to adapt, Messi found himself shouldering more of the attacking burden.
The term Messidependencia was not a new one. It had surfaced in the seasons after Guardiola's departure, when Barcelona increasingly looked to Messi to conjure something out of nothing.
Their 7-0 aggregate Champions League semi-final defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013, when a half-fit Messi struggled through the first leg and missed the second altogether, was perhaps the best proof of their dependence on him.
It was later, though, after the break-up of MSN in 2017, that Barcelona began to be more widely viewed as a one-man team, that Messi's brilliance became a mask for their deficiencies elsewhere.
The side around him was allowed to go stale. Suarez's powers were fading and so too were those of midfield duo Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. The defence had become weaker than at any point in the previous decade. Neymar, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were gone and their replacements were found wanting.
Between the summers of 2014 and 2020, Barcelona spent close to £1billion on new signings and yet the side thrashed 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final last month contained six players in their 30s and none under 25.
It is an example of how not to build a squad and Barcelona's weaknesses left Messi with even more to do at a time when they should have been conserving his energy. He was forced deeper, required to progress the ball through midfield as well as provide the final flourishes.
The fact he registered his highest-ever total of assists last season underlines the breadth of his talent – he even compensated for his deeper positioning by improving his long-range shooting – but it also shows the amount being asked of him.
Messi was doing everything. He was carrying the side.
"No other team can say they depend so much on someone," observed the former Barcelona defender Albert Ferrer in an interview earlier this month.
"Barcelona are more dependent on Messi than they have ever been," added the former midfielder Bernd Schuster.
Barcelona still won two out of three La Liga titles post-2017, but the top sides are measured by their performances in Europe and the Champions League became a persistent source of humiliation.
The trauma of this year's 8-2 defeat to Bayern was just the latest example. Last year, it was Liverpool. Before that, Roma.
The decline had set in.
The Messy end of and era
Messi's body language on those occasions suggested he knew it, and soon his frustrations were out in the open.
Tensions with the club's hierarchy were laid bare after Valverde was replaced by Quique Setien midway through last season, with Messi taking exception to comments made by Eric Abidal, their sporting director, in which he hinted that the players were responsible for Valverde's sacking.
"I think that when players are talked about," Messi wrote on Instagram, "names should be given because, if not, we are all being dirtied and it feeds comments that are made and are not true."
The public rebuke plunged the club into crisis and there was more of the same to come.
In March, Messi criticised the board in a statement confirming the squad's intention to take a 70 per cent pay-cut for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, a response to what he perceived to be another attempt from above to turn public opinion against the players.
"We would like to clarify that we have always been willing to apply a wage cut," Messi wrote. "We cannot help but be surprised by the fact that from within the club there are those trying to put us under the microscope or apply pressure for us to do something that we have always been clear that we would do."
All the while, Barcelona's performances on the pitch were suffering and Messi pulled no punches after they relinquished the title with a dismal 2-1 loss at home to Osasuna in July.
"We didn't expect to finish in this way, but it sums up the year for us," he said on Spanish television after the game.
"We are a weak team who can be beaten with enough intensity and enthusiasm. We need to be self-critical, starting with the players but also across the entire club.”
Setien was sacked a month later, with Abidal's exit following soon afterwards, but the main source of Messi's frustration was always Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club president who had overseen Barcelona's decline since taking over from Sandro Rosell in 2014.
Their relationship was broken. The infamous burofax outlining Messi's intention to leave the club landed on Bartomeu's desk on August 26.
The club's treatment of Suarez, Messi's neighbour and close friend, is said to have been the final straw for him, and a meeting with the newly-appointed manager Ronald Koeman evidently did little to ease his concerns about the club's direction.
An already messy situation could now get even messier, with Barcelona expected to dispute the clause in Messi's contract which allows him to leave on a free transfer, but there appears little doubt that his mind is made up. One way or another, it seems an extraordinary era is coming to an end.
A new adventure to come?
What’s most thrilling about Messi’s next step is that, even at 33, he is still somewhere close to the top of his game.
This season, he became the first player in La Liga history to register more than 20 goals and 20 assists. He is the current holder of the Ballon d’Or and there is little reason to believe it will be his last – especially if he joins a team which functions properly.
Messi has options – PSG are said to monitoring the situation while Inter Milan are also believed to be in the frame – but Manchester City appears his most likely destination and it is hardly surprising that a reunion with Guardiola appeals to him.
During the Catalan’s four years in charge of Barcelona, Messi scored 211 goals in 219 games, winning three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues and dominating his rivalry with Ronaldo.
His arrival in the Premier League is certainly a tantalising prospect and not just for Manchester City fans. It would be a source of fascination across the world. Not since Ronaldo’s final years at Manchester United has it been possible to argue that the world’s best player has played in England.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that Messi has anything to prove. His status as a footballing great – perhaps even the footballing great – is already assured.
But a move to England would still represent a challenge for him.
There will be no wet and windy nights at Stoke in the immediate future, barring a fateful domestic cup draw, but Messi would still have adapt to new surroundings. The Premier League offers a far greater depth of quality than La Liga. There is a greater emphasis on physicality too.
Messi, though, has done more than enough to suggest none of that would be an issue. There is plenty of evidence to show his extraordinary ability transcends all else. It has been that way since the beginning, since the delicate finish and child-like celebration that started it all.
Source: SkySports / Nick Wright