The 2017/18 season was one that seemed to promise so much change prior to its beginning.
Pep Guardiola was starting to stamp his identity on Manchester City, Manchester United were being tipped to challenge them under Jose Mourinho with a number of solid signings, and Paris Saint-Germain were finally looking like they would progress from pretender to powerhouse with the world record transfer of Neymar Jr. from Barcelona.
There was genuine feeling like it was the beginning of a new era.
The changing of the guard was well and truly upon us, or so we thought. As it now gets towards the business end of the season it’s been business as usual for the top players in the world.
Mo Salah has done his best to try upset the party with an amazing season with Liverpool but Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have shown that they are not gone just yet.
And although they have performed at different levels in different competitions, individually they are still the top dogs.
It’s Messi though whose next few months seem to be more finely poised with more riding on it for him than Ronaldo, or indeed anyone else
The little Argentine has had a phenomenal year guiding Barcelona to another La Liga title, the latter stages of the Champions League and single handily saving Argentina’s blushes in World Cup qualification.
To the vast majority, the attacker has long since cemented his status as the greatest ever.
Here in Europe, however, it’s true that we live in a bit of a footballing bubble; no doubt it’s home to the strongest leagues and all the best players but it is easy to forget the millions of passionate fans around the globe who love the game just as much as us.
On any given week we can watch Messi dismantle a team on a Wednesday in the Champions league and then again on a Sunday in La Liga, with a regular dose of memes and GIFs in the great man’s honour sandwiched in between.
To us he is the greatest, but in his own native Argentina the feeling is not so conclusive. For the majority in his homeland Messi is still in the shadow of their other left footed maestro, Diego Maradona.
Despite his four Champions Leagues and five Ballon d’ors Messi has failed to capture the emotion of Argentina as a nation in the same way Maradona did.
Added to that being unable to deliver them that elusive World Cup and as time goes on its becoming clear that one is not going to come without the other.
To some in Argentina Messi is seen as ‘European’ having spent the majority of his life in Spain and his entire footballing career at Barcelona.
When compared with Maradona Messi is often framed as ‘robotic’ as opposed to the emotive Diego. Messi is this perfect winning machine who was created in a fancy lab in a faraway country.
In contrast the image of Maradona as a ‘troubled genius’ is one that is keeping with the Argentine national identity.
The perfect microcosm of this was his performance against England in the 1986 World Cup; his two goals, one the deceitful hand of god and the second a mazy run which is arguably the greatest World Cup goal ever won the game for Albiceleste.
His performance encapsulated everything about the South American country. Added to the fact it was just four years on from the Falklands War between the two countries in which 649 Argentinians died. Even more so than Harry Kane, Diego or “God” is one of their own.
In a 2015 interview, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino even said:
For me, it is always Maradona. I am sorry Messi. I love Messi, but for me it is always Maradona.
It’s opinions like these that mean fairly or unfairly 2018 will be arguably the most defining year of Messi’s career – Maradona had 1986, Messi might have 2018.
This year for the first time ever there were some uncertainties surrounding the great man; at club level the loss of Neymar was seen as a blow to a somewhat ageing Barcelona team, and things were far from rosy at international level with Argentina claiming five points from their first five games in qualifying.
Messi only returned to the squad shorty before their opening game, after reversing his decision to retire following his traumatic penalty miss in the Copa America final to Chile three months previous.
All this going on as the little Argentinean was set to turn 30, the unsaid landmark age in football which dawns the beginning of the end.
Something that jars with people in Argentina has been Messi’s ability to win at times at ease with great players at Barcelona but how he was unable to lead his country to victory
Under Guardiola they had a team that consisted of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and David Villa who could dominate teams with possession and became arguably the best club side in recent years, and under Luis Enrique they gathered one of the most deadly front threes of all time with Neymar and Luis Suarez partnering Messi.
Part of the romanticism surrounding Maradona was how he led teams of apparent underdogs full of workmanlike players to great achievements, with Napoli and the national team.
The Argentinean public and even Messi are crying out for a team with a solid base so that the he can flourish when instead they possess an unbalanced squad top-heavy with strikers and attacking midfielders.
This is probably inevitable when these two are your two most influential players ever.
Ironically he has had this at Barcelona this season, with the loss of Neymar and Dani Alves, reduction in contribution of Iniesta and departure of Xavi previous to that.
Ernesto Valverde has moulded them into a much more functional team with Messi playing as a slightly more traditional number ten behind Suarez, instead of from the right or in a more fluid front three under Enrique.
He has fired them to the top of La Liga showing that he can perform in a less star-studded team and be a leader.
His contribution to Argentina’s qualification cannot be underestimated either and it was his hat-trick against Ecuador on the final day which sealed their place in Russia.
An exit in the Champions League quarter-final was disappointing, however.
In typically fickle nature it will be all in vain to Argentinean supports if he is not holding the World Cup in Moscow in July, their pain only magnified by the fact that Ronaldo lead Portugal to victory at Euro 2016 and their three consecutive Copa America final defeats.
He will be 34 at the time of the next World Cup meaning this could well be his last, and the many individual and team honours with Barcelona he has won won’t mean a thing in certain pockets of the world.
To think that the greatest player of all time could have such a defining year this late in his career is strange but this is a world which is ever-increasing focus on awards.
Iif Ronaldo can lead Madrid to another Champions League and win another Ballon d’or while Messi fails to capture the hearts of a nation and lift the World Cup in July then he would be face the prospect of being neither the serial winner for the younger generation or the genius entertainer for the older, falling somewhere between his ‘rivals’ in terms of style.
Messi could end up being the victim of his own brilliance. His ability to make the most difficult skills look so simple and his reluctance to express himself off the pitch could make it hard to create a narrative when the history books are written and stories are told, especially to the casual fan.
The Messi/Ronaldo/Maradona comparisons are tired and unnecessary, liking one should not mean that you must dislike the other but for some reason these discussions just never went away for Messi and began to skew how people look at him.
It’s unfair to judge an illustrious career on one tournament but football fans are the unfair type
He is the best of all time, but history tends to be written by the victor and the next few months are going to be crucial in how this story is written, In Buenos Aires and even further afield.