All-pervading!

Even in a season blighted by injuries (Messi has been out injured for about 80 days on three different occasions this term — hamstring, thigh muscle strain and again hamstring) and a tax fraud case involving his father and agent, the super-footballer has “mesmerised” whenever on field, and has managed to top Barcelona’s goal-scoring chart (16), although playing only 18 of the 30 matches, at the time of writing. Ayon Sengupta dwells on how much Messi means to Barcelona and Argetina.

Magical, mesmerising, mercurial (Messi)… Clichés galore, even more, in sports pages these days. The class and consistency of the “pocket dynamo,” Lionel Messi, surely, has made the job of football writers doubly difficult, forcing us to deal only in platitudes. This writer, too, is guilty of throwing the same adjectives now and again, in conversation and in writing, trying hard (but failing miserably) to pen an ode to the “diminutive playmaker”.

We, unfortunately, don’t have the requisite skillset to keep up with the blistering pace of achievement the Argentine is charting and wordsmiths like Neruda, Tagore or Wordsworth, perhaps, were better suited to wax eloquent about the artistry of this 26-year-old gentleman.

Even in a season blighted by injuries (Messi has been out injured for about 80 days on three different occasions this term — hamstring, thigh muscle strain and again hamstring) and a tax fraud case involving his father and agent, Messi has “mesmerised” whenever on field, and has managed to top Barcelona’s goal-scoring chart (16), although playing only 18 of the 30 matches, so far.

His recent return, after a two-month injury layoff, saw him score twice, as a second half substitute, in a Copa Del Rey game against Getafe. And although he failed to make a decisive impact in his next game at the Vicente de Calderon against fellow table-topper Atletico Madrid, Barca coach Gerardo Martino, despite his team’s near-perfect run in the La Liga (16 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss), will be happy to have him back. The Rosario-born nimble-footed flea, a star among stars, gives Barcelona the edge, adding more teeth to its attack, opening up the possibility of a miraculous piece of play from nowhere. His mere presence can damage the psyche of the opposition and the manic preoccupation of defenders with Messi makes them susceptible to mistakes, thereby creating a little extra space for the Barca superstar’s fellow-attackers.

With Messi in its ranks, the Catalan side, since 2009, enjoys a victory percentage of over 70, with the Argentinian scoring the bulk of the goals. His performance in big ticket games is even more staggering. In the more competitive (than La Liga and Copa Del Rey) UEFA Champions League, Messi has scored 48 goals in 39 games over the same period. Against archrival Real Madrid, Messi in his 26 outings has managed 18 goals and 11 assists, winning an impressive 12 games, while drawing and losing seven each.

But Messi and Barca, even after securing the Spanish title last season, with a record-equalling points haul, were given a rude jolt by the German side, Bayern Munich, in the Champions League semi-final, losing 7-0 on aggregate. Messi, nursing yet another niggle, was below par and his team lacked the adequate wherewithal to deal with Bayern’s high tempo, wing-oriented, pressing game. The heavy defeat was indeed a rude shock to a side.

Martino, replacing a sick Tito Vilanova, (possibly on Messi’s insistence), will need the “talisman” to provide the desired sparkle as the 2013-14 season enters its crucial mid-phase. Even though the Barca boardroom had a marquee signing in Brazilian Neymar, who has fitted in wonderfully well, already scoring six times in 16 appearances and the rich return from Alexis Sanchez (11 goals, five assists from 25 games) and Pedro (15 goals from 28), Messi remains the team’s Man Friday.

So his peak fitness — which is analogous to his peak form — is imperative for Barcelona’s success, especially in the highly-valued Champions League. And in a World Cup year, devotees back in Argentina, too, and even the local government, led by Cristina Kirchner, will be praying for the player’s good health. The state has made football one of its principal political tools (much like Argentina’s military junta of 1978), launching Futbol Para Todos (Football for All), in 2009. The idea was to make football available to all, not just to paying subscribers with cable channels, with the state funding the initiative. Though it is hoped that the investment would be recovered through advertising, that possibility remains a distant dream.

Nevertheless, passionate Argentines firmly believe that positive performances from the national team are surely “mood enhancers.” After failing to effectively express itself at the quadrennial FIFA event over the past two decades, the team will want to redeem itself at Brazil 2014 and perhaps give Kirchner and her ilk a positive boost after shaky electoral results earlier this year. But it is yet to be proved that a sporting spectacle can dictate the economic and political welfare of a nation.

But, coming back to football — keeping away from such highly combustible intellectual debates — Argentina, managed by the vocal pro-government, former Estudiantes coach, Alejandro Sabella, will be looking to its captain, Messi, for all the inspiration.

Thirty-four of Messi’s 37 international goals (83 matches) have come in winning causes — the defeats coming against Croatia in a friendly at St. Jacob-Park in March 2006, versus Colombia at the Estadio El Campin in Bogota in a 2010 World Cup qualifier, on November 2007 and in a friendly against Spain at Vicente Calderon, on November 2009 — rubbishing claims of his underperformance in Argentine colours.

However, with only a goal from eight matches across 2006 and 2010, his returns from World Cup outings are poor, though his teamwork and approach-play in South Africa were as assiduous as ever. Thankfully, La Pulga, has been prolific in the qualifying stage, scoring 11 goals and will be eager to rewrite his script at FIFA competitions.

To Messi’s relief, Sabella, unlike his predecessors, has been able to find the right system for Argentina into which the Flea would fit in perfectly. Messi operates slightly ahead of a conventional playmaker and right behind a conformist No. 9 in Gonzalo Higuain (usually). The team, unlike Barcelona, plays on the counter, relying on the explosive pace of Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero to take the game forward, with Messi fully utilising the space left open by the opposition’s over-lapping deep players.

The captaincy, too, conferred on Messi by Sabella in his first official duty as Argentina coach back in 2011, ahead of a friendly against Venezuela at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, has made a positive impact. Nineteen of Messi’s 37 international strikes have come in as skipper and the soft-spoken star, unlike the vocal leaders of yesteryear, has used only his on-field performance to lift up his players.

Now, a generation waits for him to lift a World Cup. If it happens, nothing dramatically will alter though: “Messi Magic” and its corresponding cliches will continue to flow.