A few days ago Leo Messi feared he had broken something in Barcelona's Champions League match against Benfica. The Argentina forward went down clutching his knee in the 85th minute, causing the entire Camp Nou to collectively hold its breath.
Four days later he did break something — a record that has been the focus of the soccer world for several weeks. Messi's brace against Real Betis on Sunday night took his goal tally for the year to 86, one more than Bayern Munich and West Germany striker Gerd Müller, who scored 85 in the calendar year 1972.
Both are short in stature, big on goal-scoring prowess; Müller was dubbed kleines dickes Müller — "short fat Müller" — when he was presented to then-Bayern coach Zlatko Cajkovski in 1964. Müller's girth did not stop him becoming one of the most prolific strikers of all time. Cajkovski might have asked TSV 1861 Nördlingen what their former youth player was capable of: Müller scored 180 goals for the team in the 1962–63 season.
Messi was also a prolific youth at Newell's Old Boys, from where Barcelona signed him in 2000 because the Argentinean club could not afford his growth hormone treatment. The Flea seems capable of breaking every scoring record in the books, but he has some way to go to top Müller's career haul: 68 goals in 62 games for West Germany; 14 World Cup strikes in 13 matches and 365 goals in 427 Bundesliga games. Müller is also a World Cup winner.
Messi is a fantastic player. The only fault he has is that he doesn't play for Bayern"
However, one area where Messi is about to become peerless is the Zurich podium of the Fifa Ballon d'Or. It seems impossible that Messi will not win his fourth consecutive award — unless Andrés Iniesta receives a sympathy vote for lifetime achievement — topping the three in a row that current Uefa president Michel Platini picked up from 1983-85. Cristiano Ronaldo will be delighted either way.
No player has won four times, and Messi is still only 26. Müller, incredibly, scooped the award just once, in 1970. But then Müller had to contend with George Best, Bobby Moore, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer... and this was before non-Europeans playing in Europe were made eligible.
"I am going to try to score one or two more to make it more difficult for anyone who comes after me," chuckled Messi after Barça's 2-1 win in Seville.
"I held my record for 40 years," Müller told Der Spiegel on Monday morning. "Now Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, has beaten it. I'm happy for him; Messi is a fantastic player. The only fault he has is that he doesn't play for Bayern Munich."
On a famous night in La Liga, Messi's achievement came hot on the heels of a five-goal haul for Atlético's Falcao in a 6-0 win over Deportivo. It was the first such orgy of net-rippling in the league by a single player since Fernando Morientes' five against Las Palmas in 2002. "Right now he is the best number nine in the world," enthused Atlético president Enrique Cerezo after the Colombian's recital. "Is he the best in Atlético's history? Up to now yes, of course he is, but he has plenty of playing time left yet. This is the first time I have seen an [Atlético] player score five. I'd seen four. I'd seen [Milinko] Pantic and [Christian] Vieri score four, but never five."
The record for the most goals in a Liga game is seven, held jointly by László Kubala (for Barcelona against Sporting Gijón in 1952) and Agustín Sauto Arana for Athletic against Barça in 1931. Three players have bagged six in 90 Liga minutes: César Rodríguez Álvarez (Granada), Edmundo Suárez (Valencia) and Telmo Zarra (Athletic).
Not to be outdone, Messi scored five against Bayer Leverkusen in March of this year, becoming the only player to hit a hat-trick and two-thirds in the modern format of the competition.
Atlético travels to Barcelona on Sunday for a league fixture between leader and precocious pretender. Five points separate Atlético from Real in third, with 11 between the champion and Tito Vilanova's side. It might not be a night for record-breaking, but with Messi and Falcao on this form it will be quite a game.