Lionel Messi
Lionel Andres Messi is an Argentinean who plays for Spanish La Liga club, FC Barcelona, primarily as a striker or winger. The youngster, whose playing style and small size has earned him comparisons with fellow Argentinean, Diego Maradona, is almost universally acclaimed as one of the best, if not the best, player in the world today. Messi was top scorer at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, with six goals, including two in the finals. In 2006, he became the youngest Argentine to play in the FIFA World Cup and he won a runners-up medal at the Copa América the following year. In 2007, Messi established the Leo Messi Foundation, a charity supporting access to education and health care for vulnerable children. In March 2010, Messi was announced made Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Messi has been featured on the front covers of the 2009 and 2011 versions of the popular Pro Evolution Soccer video game series.

Pundits and footballing experts the world over have been queuing up to fawn over the current Barcelona side. The current European Champions have been lauded as the greatest team ever to have graced the beautiful game, with their clean close ball possession, superb and elegant passing game and devastating potency in front of goal.

They may be the most complete team currently in Europe - although they are in need of a couple of decent centre-half's - but they are they really the greatest club side ever?

Given how football has evolved over the decades, and in particular the last twenty years, with faster, more physical teams and owners prepared to bankroll the whims of increasingly egotistical managers, how can you possibly compare, for example, the AC Milan team of 1998-1990 with the 1955-1960 Real Madrid side?

You can't, and it's dangerous to do so. Inspiring, as it does, inherent fan bias and generational differences. But this being football, every team that reaches the top of the sport will inevitably be compared to those that came before them. Always have, always will.

Truly great sides are involved in the most competitive games, they triumph, in the end, because there is no other option but to win. Be that through the sheer force of particular personalities within the side - Steven Gerrard for Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League Final, for example - or the dominating style of play evident in the current Spanish side.

Generically efficient sides can never be considered great. There aren't too many commentators reminiscing about the 1996-1997 Borussia Dortmund side, right?

We should perhaps celebrate the fact a single sport can contain such variation in style and personnel. But where does the current Barcelona side stand in comparison?

There is among some football consumers a mildly ritualistic televisual reverence for the current - really quite good - Barcelona team, with their fixation on possession and an overbearing production line of soft-shoe midfield minstrels.

The "carousel" as Sir Alex Ferguson called it after Manchester United's 2-0 defeat in Rome in 2009. But the carousel isn't the most exciting ride at the fair, it's the dodgems, or the rollercoaster, or the elastic bungee. Sometimes the carousel just makes you dizzy and you want to get off.

But amongst most football fans the Barcelona football philosophy is the footballing belief at present. Throughout Europe there are clubs that aspire to the perceived moral righteousness that Barca represent. The idea that the actual scoring of a goal is somehow dirty and should only be done with an aesthete's discerning touch. A sense of being not just better but better, more upright, more academic.

Good, not great

Possession play tends to produces negative results, the longer a team retains possession, the more time the opposition has to re-group and organise their defense. Charles Hughes demonstrates in his book, The Winning Formula, that a higher percentage of goals are scored in moves involving only three passes prior to shooting and that the majority are scored within five passes.

This is how the most exciting games involving the most interesting teams are played. Think about the 2003 quarter-final second leg (Man Utd 4-3 Real Madrid) or the Liverpool vs AC Milan final in 2005.

In the same vein, Barcelona cannot be considered the greatest team of all time because, and whisper it quietly lest the footballing overlords catch wind; they're a little bit dull.

In 2006-07, according to Opta, Barcelona had on average 61.1per cent possession in Champions League games. Since then that has gone up each year: to 63.2 then to 65.6 then 70.6 and this season 73.3. When playing Barca, teams have to get used to spending long periods without the ball and to watching Barca knock the ball around between themselves. The "sterile domination" as Arsene Wenger termed it.

But possession football is not that exciting and the truly great European sides have never used it to impose themselves. Those that have, have adopted a proactive style without the relentless sideways movement of the current Barca team.

To be compared to the teams that came before them, Barcelona must win and retain the European Cup - this has always been the benchmark of a great side. At present they're good, but not yet great.