The desperately sad news that fledgling boss Tito Vilanova has suffered a relapse of his cancer has overshadowed an otherwise momentous week for Barcelona. On Sunday night, Vilanova was on the touchline to oversee yet another superfluous performance from the greatest club side of the modern era. Lionel Messi notched his 89th and 90th goals of a record-breaking 2012 to round off a 4-1 demolition of Atletico Madrid, their closest league rivals - and push Barça 13 points ahead of Real with less than half of the season gone. Their fourth league title in five years, as-good-as wrapped up in time for Christmas.
Though shaken by the news that their manager will undergo six weeks of chemotherapy to combat a resurgence of the throat cancer that plagued him last season - thus injecting an element of short-term uncertainty into an otherwise stable setup - the long-term future looks decidedly rosy at the Camp Nou.
Whilst the gilded La Masia production line continues to churn out world class talent season after season, a pair of graduates who have already won every trophy in football have extended their contracts for another three seasons; long-time captain Carles Puyol will remain at Barcelona until 2016, as will his majestic compatriot, Xavi Hernandez.
It was also confirmed that a third alumnus, Leo Messi - you may have heard of him - will remain at the club until 2018. Already Barcelona's all-time top scorer at the age of 25, consider the terrifying prospect that the undisputed best footballer on the planet is yet to reach his peak. He will do so over the course of the next five seasons.
Spare a thought for Cristiano Ronaldo. Were it not for the freakish talent of the diminutive Messi, we would instead be heralding the Portuguese as the player of his generation. Exasperated at the consistency with which he is trumped in the brilliance stakes, Ronaldo recently proclaimed his 'sadness' at Real Madrid, and may not stick around in Spain for too many more seasons; by contrast, there was never any doubt that Messi would commit to Barcelona.
Why, after all, would he want to ply his trade anywhere else? He might have collected every last piece of silverware in club football, but there is truth in the old cliché that success breeds success, making the competitor hungry for more. There is a more significant factor at play here, though. The current Barcelona team is already mentioned in the same breath as Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan side of the late Eighties and early Nineties but, over the next five seasons, Messi and his colleagues have an unprecedented opportunity to leapfrog Gullit, Rijkaard, van Basten and co., cementing this team's reputation as the greatest club side in history.
That salient detail seems to have passed one esteemed pundit by. In his debut Sportsmail column yesterday, talkSPORT's resident shock-jock Adrian Durham lambasted Messi's decision to stay put. 'MAGNIFICENT MESSI HAS BOTTLED OUT OF BIG TEST,' screamed a dim-witted headline which apparently overlooked little Leo's astonishing Champions' League goalscoring record - 56 and counting.
"Messi has won everything at Barcelona," Durham correctly identifies, before sullying his argument. "There's nothing left to do there. So why not come to the Premier League so we can find out if he can do it out of his comfort zone?"
Aha! We've caught him out! Lazy, lazy Leo Messi doesn't have the cojones to test himself against the watertight defences of Southampton, Wigan and Reading. Perhaps he's just afraid that he couldn't hack it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke. He may as well just see at the remainder of his career in the Spanish backwater. At least, that's the way that Adrian Durham sees it.
Durham's argument is nonsensical on several levels. It is clear that Messi has plenty "left to do" - he can establish a legacy which will lay the foundations for a veritable dynasty at Barcelona. That is not to mention Messi's eye-watering 250 million euro buy-out clause - within the financial grasp of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain, perhaps, but neither club was ever likely to prise Messi from his spiritual home. In any case, it is an entirely theoretical figure. In an era where every player supposedly has his pricetag, Messi is priceless.
Now let's assume for a moment that Messi was for sale. Why, exactlty, would he opt to come to the Premier League? The Bundesliga is perhaps the most exciting major league in Europe right now, whilst one could make a decent argument for placing Serie A ahead of the Premier League when it comes to competitiveness. The all-too-often propagated myth that the Premier League somehow represents the summit of world football - that the only true test of a world class player is whether or not he can score a hattrick at the Britannia - has evolved from its origins as a clever marketing exercise to incontestable fact in the minds of our less cultured commentators. Time and time again, Messi has enlivened the big occasion - yes, even against English sides. When was the last time Wayne Rooney scored four goals against Arsenal in a Champions League quarter-final?
True to his "I'm only being honest" form, a feature which has defined Durham's broadcasting career (see the inept punditry of fellow Jeremy Kyle impressionist Robbie Savage for further details), our Adrian's comments are more than likely a calculated attempt to garner maximum publicity for his new column. We can only speculate as to the reasons why Durham is yet to make the big move to test himself on 5 Live.
In the meantime, he is content with branding Lionel Messi a "bottler" for his decision to remain a one-club man. If Messi sees out his career at Barcelona - joining the likes of Casillas, Scholes, Schweinsteiger, Maldini, Totti, De Rossi, Adams, Gerrard, Le Tissier, Xavi and Iniesta, to name but a few - he will be in exalted company.
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