Erling Haaland is special but Lionel Messi remains untouchable: Barcelona legend's greatest season revisited
Erling Haaland is a phenomenon. No one can dispute that. Manchester City knew they were getting a top striker when they paid Borussia Dortmund £51 million to sign the Norwegian last summer, but they would never have guessed he would be quite this prolific.
Haaland grabbed his 50th goal in all competitions for City against Fulham on Sunday. It was his 34th in the Premier League - which saw him equal the all-time single season record set by Andy Cole and Alan Shearer.
City's terminator will no doubt get a few more before the season is over, with Pep Guardiola's side still in the hunt for a treble, but he is unlikely to get close to the all-time record for most goals scored across all competitions in a single campaign in one of Europe's major leagues.
That honour is still held by a certain Lionel Messi, who bagged 73 goals for Barcelona during their 2011-12 season.
Guardiola was managing Barca at the time, and had a simple message for the football world as it tried to make sense of what Messi was doing.
“Don't write about him, don't try to describe him. Watch him," he enthused.
Messi's individual exploits that year will never be eclipsed, and his record is even more remarkable due to the fact he was playing in a disjointed Barca side coming towards the end of an era.
Haaland deserves all the praise he is getting in Manchester, but Messi was on another planet.
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Breaking down the numbers
Messi managed to bring up 73 goals in just 60 appearances, with 62 of those efforts coming with his stronger left foot.
He scored eight with his right and three headers completed his record-setting haul as he spent a grand total of 5,221 minutes on the pitch.
The Argentina international averaged a goal every 71.5 minutes for Barca, and 53 of those were recorded in open play.
Messi converted 14 penalties and also found the net with three free-kicks. His remaining four goals were a result of him getting on the end of set-pieces.
Sublime Supercopa start
Messi got off the mark in the very first game of the season, in the first leg of Barcelona's Supercopa de Espana clash with arch-rivals Real Madrid.
After shaking off Pepe to get himself in the box, Messi rolled the ball under Iker Casillas to give Barca a 2-1 lead at Santiago Bernabeu.
Madrid fought back to earn a 2-2 draw, but there were more fireworks in the second leg.
Messi scored twice as Barca clinched the trophy with a 3-2 victory at Camp Nou. His first was a trademark dinked finish and he settled the tie with a thunderous first-time volley three minutes from time.
🏆 Supercopa 2011— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 15, 2023
⚔ Barça 3-2 Madrid (Agg: 5-4)
⚽ Iniesta, Messi X2 pic.twitter.com/n3MPGxklal
It was a sign of things to come.
Barcelona laid down an early marker in La Liga's title race by thrashing Villarreal 5-0 and humiliating Osasuna 8-0 at Camp Nou.
Messi scored the first of his nine hat-tricks that season in the latter, and grabbed his second treble when Atletico Madrid arrived in Catalunya at the end of September.
With Barca already 2-0 up, Messi took center stage, increasing their advantage with an incredible solo goal just before the interval that saw him slalom past four Atletico defenders before stroking the ball home at the near post.
He made it 4-0 after another dizzying run and nutmegged Thibaut Courtois to complete his hat-trick in the 90th minute and round off a night to forget for the Atletico goalkeeper.
Four touches ruin Racing defence
By the time Racing Santander arrived at Camp Nou in October, Messi was already up to 14 goals for the season.
Barca ran out comfortable 3-0 winners on the night and Messi opened the scoring with a goal that epitomised his genius.
Andres Iniesta received the ball on the far side of the box before laying it off to an on-rushing Messi, whose first touch took four defenders out of the game.
He then took another to set himself before steering the ball around the Racing keeper and tapping into an empty net.
Four sublime touches that you might have missed if you'd blinked, and Barca were on their way to another victory.
Club World Cup final
The 2011 FIFA Club World Cup final was billed as a battle between Messi and Neymar - who was already attracting interest from Barca and Real Madrid after a stunning start to his career at Santos.
But Neymar couldn't have imagined just how big the gulf in class was between the two teams.
Guardiola's side absolutely dominated the first half, with Messi opening the scoring after just 17 minutes with a cheeky chip after being played in by Xavi.
Goals from Xavi and Cesc Fabregas put Barca out of sight before the break, and Messi added extra gloss to the final scoreline late on.
He actually took a poor first touch from a Dani Alves pass when getting through on goal again, but somehow still managed to poke the ball past the keeper before tapping home.
🏆 #OTD in 2011, Barça beat Santos 4-0 in Yokohama, to win the Club World Cup. Goals from #Messi 2x, #Xavi, and @cesc4official. pic.twitter.com/8sfuNgU0hU— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) December 18, 2020
Neymar would eventually go on to forge a partnership for the ages with Messi at Camp Nou, and their relationship is as strong as ever now they're back together at Paris Saint-Germain, but this is where it began.
Messi and Barca taught Neymar a footballing lesson he'd never forget.
Best hat-trick ever?
Fresh from a 2-1 away win in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final clash with Real Madrid in January, Barca took in a trip to Malaga in La Liga.
Messi conjured up a spectacular display to lift Barca to a 4-1 win as he bagged another hat-trick, and this one remains arguably the best of his entire career to date.
The visitors were in need of a spark after a goalless first half an hour, and as usual, Messi was the one to take the game by the scruff of the neck. He played an incisive pass through to Iniesta to open up the Malaga defence and continued running as the Spaniard knocked the ball wide to Adriano.
The Brazilian then delivered a perfectly weighted first-time cross for Messi, who leapt to power a brilliant header into the bottom corner of the net - silencing the critics that often claimed he offered no threat in the air due to his 5'7 stature.
Alexis Sanchez doubled Barca's lead just after the interval before another moment of ingenuity from Messi. He turned on a loose ball 40 yards from goal before racing past three Malaga defenders and producing a calm low finish under pressure.
Messi then settled the game with an even better individual goal, after first showing great balance to skip past a slide tackle from Martin Demichelis. He showed off his deceptive pace and close control once again to glide into Malaga's box and managed to evade the last man standing in defence with a lightning-fast dummy before sliding the ball past the keeper - almost all in the same movement.
Opportunism at its finest
Messi's career highlight reel includes a whole host of outstanding free-kicks, but perhaps the finest of them all came on February 26, 2012, at the Vicente Calderon.
Barca were in danger of dropping a vital two points against Atletico with the scoreline level at 1-1 heading towards the final 10 minutes.
An opportunity presented itself when they won a foul on the far edge of the box, though, and the angle looked to favour a delivery from the right foot of Xavi.
However, before Xavi even put the ball down, Messi was sizing up Courtois' net. The Atletico No.1 was standing at his near post trying to arrange his wall to be ready for any surprise shot, and Messi saw an opportunity.
With half the players in the box still not paying attention, Messi took a big stride forward and curled a wonderful shot into the gap in the net that Courtois had left open. Even if he had been ready, he probably wouldn't have saved it.
This Messi free-kick against Atletico Madrid isn’t spoken about enough.— GOAL (@goal) November 15, 2020
Messi had the smallest target to aim for from a daunting distance and awkward angle, but he executed the free kick perfectly - almost like he was still on the training ground. All in a day's work for the greatest player of all time.
History made against Leverkusen
Haaland became only the third player in Champions League history to hit five goals in a single game when he inspired City to a 7-0 victory in the first leg of their last-16 tie against RB Leipzig in March.
Luiz Adriano also achieved that feat for Shakhtar Donetsk in 2014, and there are no prizes for guessing who did it first two years earlier.
Barca came up against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2011-12 knockout stages, and earned a 3-1 victory in the first leg of the tie in Germany.
The Spanish giants couldn't afford any complacency as they sought to finish the job at Camp Nou, and Messi set the tone right from the start.
His first goal came in the form of a delightful dinked finish in the 25th minute, and he then scored two more goals either side of half-time to complete his hat-trick. Both of those efforts were other-worldly too.
Messi's fourth was a simpler finish from close range but his final goal of the night was another cracker as he whipped a beautiful strike past the hapless Leverkusen keeper from just outside the box.
📅 OTD in 2012, Barcelona hammered Leverkusen 7-1...— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 7, 2021
25' ⚽️ Lionel Messi
42' ⚽️ Lionel Messi
49' ⚽️ Lionel Messi
58' ⚽️ Lionel Messi
85' ⚽️ Lionel Messi
The Argentine became the FIRST player to score FIVE goals in a Champions League match 😳🐐pic.twitter.com/vM5zXVzWLJ
By this stage of the campaign, Messi was making a mockery of just about every team that Barca were coming up against.
Despite Messi's insane numbers in the final third, Barcelona's final season under Guardiola was their least successful.
Real Madrid finished nine points clear of the Blaugrana in La Liga with a record haul of 100 points, as eternal pragmatist Jose Mourinho also transformed the Blancos into the competition's highest scorers (121 goals).
Cristiano Ronaldo bagged 46 of them, and had 60 goals to his name across all competitions by the end of the campaign, but was still overshadowed by his rival in Catalunya.
Messi set a new La Liga record with his haul of 50 goals, which is unlikely to ever be broken.
He also boasted 102 goal involvements after his 60 appearances for Barca that season, 27 more than Ronaldo - who posted a career-best tally in that department from five less games.
Barca also had a better head-to-head record against Real. They won three, drew two and lost just one of their six meetings with Real.
After winning the Supercopa, Messi & Co also got the better of Mourinho's men on their way to lifting the Copa del Rey, which gave them a treble after their Club World Cup success.
Ronaldo may have had the last laugh in La Liga, but there was absolutely no doubt that Messi stood alone at the top of the football mountain by the end of the year.
Also a master provider
Messi's greatest season wasn't only about goals. He also laid on 29 assists for his team-mates, which is still the joint highest total across Europe's top five leagues to this day (alongside Juan Mata for Chelsea in 2013-14).
The Barcelona icon recorded 0.5 assists per 90 minutes, with 16 coming in La Liga as he claimed yet another competition record.
Those playmaking qualities are what really set Messi apart from the rest. Yes, he has an unmatched eye for goal, but he also sees passes that no one else does and has the technical ability to execute them.
As Messi has advanced in years, he's dropped slightly deeper to dictate the pace of games, which has helped him prolong his career at the very highest level - unlike Ronaldo.
2011-12 was such a remarkable campaign for Messi because he became the ultimate all-round player. He featured in several different Barca teams that were far better, but they remained a major force and still scooped a treble of trophies because he was able to reach a level the game had never previously seen.
He kept it up the following campaign too, eventually reaching 91 goals for club and country in the calendar year to beat the previous record set by Germany legend Gerd Muller.
For Haaland, living up to those same standards will be impossible. We have to stop comparing every great player to Messi, because there will never be another like him.
Long live the GOAT.