Lionel Messi is the best football player on the planet.
OK, OK, so maybe that's nothing new or controversial. How about...this?
Lionel Messi is the best football player on the planet by a long shot.
Or, as Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated phrases it:
The gap in quality between Messi and any other soccer player on the planet is mind-boggling.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) March 7, 2012
After Wednesday's performance by King Leo in Barcelona's 7-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League, even that would be difficult to argue with. The Argentinian maestro marauded the Werkself for five (yes, five) goals, including a hat trick within the first 49 minutes of play at the Camp Nou. This marked the first time in Champions League history that a single player had accounted for so many scores in a single game.
It's a good thing Ray Hudson wasn't on hand to call the match. Otherwise, the Blaugrana might well have had an embarrassing situation on their hands, as the Men in Blazers envision:
Really hope the great Ray Hudson was wearing his Depends during Messi's five-goal rout.— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) March 7, 2012
Opta Sports placed Messi's European brilliance into statistical perspective:
49 - Of the 49 teams to have played in the CL since 2010-11, Lionel Messi (24) has scored more goals than 40 of them in that period. Icon.— Opta Sports (@OptaJoe) March 7, 2012
The quintet of goals pushed Messi's total for the season to 12 in seven Champions League appearances and 48 in 42 games across all competitions; this includes goals in La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Spanish Supercup, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Messi's closest competitor, Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo, sports an astounding 38 goals in 37 matches, but still finds himself well behind his South-American counterpart. Add in assists, in which Messi holds an even more decisive edge (25-11), and the gulf becomes even more pronounced.
With this season for the ages well in progress and a heap of trophies and personal accolades already in his back pocket, the question then becomes: Where does Messi rank in the pantheon of world football's greatest players?
Manchester United star Wayne Rooney had an answer for that following Messi's marvelous display against Leverkusen:
Messi is a joke. For me the best ever.— Wayne Rooney (@WayneRooney) March 7, 2012
What about those who might otherwise lay claim to the title of "greatest ever" (i.e. Diego Maradona and Pele)? Well, there seems to still be some measure of disagreement.
Maradona (surprise, surprise) is on the side of his fellow countryman, whom he coached during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Pele, the most prolific goal scorer ever, is not yet convinced:
When Messi's scored 1,283 goals like me, when he's won three World Cups, we'll talk about it...Football changes. Records are there to be broken, but it will be hard to break mine.
I like Messi a lot, he's a great player...Technically, we're practically at the same level.
He's a great player for Barcelona, but when he plays for Argentina, he doesn't have the same success.
It's a point worth considering, to be sure. While Messi has dominated in all competitions for the Blaugrana, he's yet to truly break out for the Albiceleste. He caught plenty of flak for his subpar play in the World Cup and the 2011 Copa America, though his hat trick against Switzerland may be a harbinger of things to come on the world stage for King Leo.
Still, there's little doubt that Messi has plenty of work left to do before he can reasonably be placed alongside Pele and Maradona in the annals of football history.
But the mere fact that Messi, at just 24 years old and with plenty of fearless football ahead of him, is so much as sparking the discussion is proof enough that he stands alone as the best player on the planet.
Well, that and the whole "five goals in one game" thing.