Lionel Messi has been terrorising rival defences for over a decade and breaking endless records with astonishing ease in the process. The diminutive genius is only a couple of strikes away from reaching a jaw-dropping 500 career goals -- another historical landmark for the best-ever footballer to add to his collection.
Never afraid to step up to take responsibility and put his team on his shoulders, Messi has become central to the unprecedented success that Barcelona fans have been spoiled with since his debut back in October 2004. While those who witnessed the skinny teenager taking his first steps with the Catalans' first team did have high expectations given his reputation at the youth level, nobody could have possibly predicted La Pulga would have a record 26 trophies to his name at this stage in his career.
Although rivals have tirelessly studied Messi's game to try and limit his influence, the No. 10's constant search for improvement has meant that their efforts have been in vain. Always focused on being one step ahead of the opposition, the Argentine has managed to evolve into a far more complete player with age, a far more effective leader who does not only excel thanks to his deadly finishing, but also someone capable of bringing out the best of those around him.
Having shared the Blaugrana front line with world-class stars such as Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho, David Villa and Thierry Henry, it is clear that Messi was fortunate to have such a wealth of talent around him from an early age. Without a doubt, making the most of his teammates' abilities and invaluable advice helped him develop into the leader he is today, both on and off the pitch.
Although Messi has been crucial to his team's success from the moment he made his professional debut, it would be fair to say that his leadership has never been more obvious than it is today. Now starring alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar in the most imposing strike force in world football, Messi has reached an unprecedented level of maturity which, despite the huge weight of responsibility on his shoulders, enables him to thrive on a weekly basis while enjoying football more than ever before.
Even though it truly feels that their partnership is still in its infancy, it has now been a whole 100 games since Messi, Suarez and Neymar first shared Barca's front line. Since that cold night in Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu back in October 2014, the MSN trident has scored a combined 210 goals and provided a remarkable 96 assists for one another. Their immediate impact has been so overwhelming that it feels strange for Cules to think back on the days when their No. 10 had to share the attack with the now-departed Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez -- although, in fact, only a couple of seasons have passed since.
Messi has netted 86 goals in the 84 appearances he has made for Barca since the MSN trio was formed. As if scoring an average of more than a goal per game wasn't impressive enough, the 28-year-old has also assisted Suarez and Neymar on 33 occasions -- which clearly exemplifies his evolution from a pure goalscorer capable of scoring 91 goals in the 2012 calendar year to a generous, all-around leader who always prioritises the team's interests over his own.
Thanks to Messi's conscious decision to support his teammates' development rather than creating unnecessary trouble within the dressing room to protect his ego, both Suarez and Neymar have fulfilled their full potential and have become the Argentine's perfect partners in crime. With the Brazilian having contributed with 56 goals and 24 assists since October 2014 and the Uruguayan currently battling for this season's European Golden Boot, nobody can deny that Three Amigos are the perfect complement to one another's individual talents.
Perhaps more importantly, Barcelona have won 82 percent of the matches in which they have fielded Messi, Suarez and Neymar. The fact that only four teams (Celta twice, Malaga, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich) have been able to beat the Catalans is a true reflection of the vital role the three South American stars play for the Camp Nou giants on a weekly basis. Their dynamism, unpredictability and almost telepathic understanding truly make Messi, Suarez and Neymar the most effective front line in football history.
With the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal currently being Messi's only remarkable achievement for Argentina, however, some may argue that La Pulga has only been successful at Barca thanks to the many world-class players around him.
While it is obvious that playing alongside Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Co. certainly helps, the truth is that Messi would have added the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America to his trophy cabinet if Gonzalo Higuain had shown the necessary level of composure in front of goal when given the chance. In football, as in life, tiny details make all the difference. Still, the No. 10 should be proud of having led his nation to both finals despite the many difficulties faced in terms of injury and lack of managerial clarity and direction.
Barca and, particularly, Argentina fans will not fully understand how fortunate they are to have such an influential star in their team until the very day Messi decides to hang up his boots for good. Until that dreaded day comes, however, let's just sit back and savour every moment.