By Iain Rogers
With a fifth world player of the year award safely tucked away in the trophy cabinet, Lionel Messi can set his sights on one of the next milestones in his remarkable career: reaching 500 goals for club and country.
The Barcelona and Argentina forward can add to his jaw-dropping tally of 479 in 609 official games – 430 for Barca and 49 for his national team – in Sunday’s La Liga match at home to Athletic Bilbao.
The 28-year-old from Rosario, who picked up the FIFA Ballon d’Or on Monday, is looking close to his best following a two-month injury layoff late last year and netted a hat-trick when second-placed Barca crushed Granada 4-0 at the Nou Camp last weekend in their most recent outing in Spain’s top flight.
He has nine goals in 13 La Liga games this season, six behind leading marksmen and Barca team-mates Neymar and Luis Suarez, who have 15 in 16 and 17 appearances respectively.
“He looks in very good shape and he is fundamental for us,” Barca coach Luis Enrique said after Messi set up Munir el Haddadi to open the scoring in Wednesday’s King’s Cup triumph at Espanyol, which secured the holders’ place in the last eight.
“He had enough rest while he was injured and the more time he can spend on the pitch now the better,” added the former Barca and Spain midfielder.
Barca, who have played one match fewer than their main rivals, are two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who play at 16th-placed Las Palmas earlier on Sunday.
Real Madrid are a further two points adrift in third before they host Sporting Gijon, also on Sunday, when new coach Zinedine Zidane will lead the team for the second time.
The former Real and France great, who replaced the sacked Rafa Benitez, got off to a flying start on his debut last weekend with a 5-0 home win over Deportivo La Coruna.
Villarreal, a point behind Real in fourth, host struggling Real Betis on Saturday, who are still without a coach after Pepe Mel was sacked this week after eight games without a victory in all competitions.
Gary Neville’s Valencia are looking to bounce back from last weekend’s 2-0 reverse at Real Sociedad when they host Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.