After nearly 400 games, and over 300 goals, is Lionel Messi suffering from burn out?
I first met and interviewed Messi in December 2005, almost eight years ago.
I recall thinking, if reports of his phenomenal talent are even half true, this teenager could go on to enjoy a top-flight career spanning the best part of twenty years.
And so it’s transpired. Messi has scored an awful lot of goals.
But is that still the case?
At the age of 26, just as he is supposed to be entering his peak, why does the four-time world player of the year keep getting injured?
The South American’s latest setback – a fresh injury to the hamstring which went earlier this month – will likely see him out of action until after Christmas.
It’s his second injury of the campaign having earlier bruised his left thigh. Last season he missed several key games – most notably against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in the latter stages of the European Champions League – with an earlier hamstring complaint.
This is a crucial stage in the Argentine's career - especially with the World Cup just seven months away.
Messi’s recent run of injuries has come as something of a surprise. Since 2008, when Messi was out of action for six weeks due to a left leg muscle tear, it’s been relatively smooth sailing.
Much work has been done behind the scenes with Barcelona physio Juanjo Brau, who worked around the clock to ensure the Catalans' biggest asset was in mint condition.
During the Pep Guardiola era, Brau - who no longer works day-to-day with Messi following a promotion - tried to curb the player’s natural explosiveness on the field of play.
The goal to some extent has been to limit Messi’s work-rate, maximizing his all–round effectiveness and impact.
To that end, it’s reported the player’s diet and sleeping patterns were closely scrutinized and then revamped.
An injury-free Messi, under the stewardship of Guardiola, led Barca through a golden period in which the club secured four Spanish championships and two European Cups.
Opportunities for rest have been few and far between.
Constant globetrotting can't have helped him much either, not to mention the unwanted distractions of his recent tax case.
For his sake and the good of all around him Messi needs a temporary breather from the game. This enforced absence may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
I don't doubt Barca will miss Messi. But this is one break he needs badly. His natural passion for the game – some might argue obsession – is something that must be curbed for his own sake.
Even Messi’s fitness coach Fernando Signorini concedes as much, saying someone simply has to “set limits” for the player.
The team will be fine without him for a short while.
It will be a chance for Brazil star Neymar to take center stage and shine as he grows into life at the Camp Nou.
Like Neymar, who will be Brazil’s brightest star when the country hosts the World Cup next year, Messi carries an extra burden when he pulls on his national jersey.
So often over the years Messi been compared to the legendary Diego Maradona - living with the almost constant accusation that he doesn't perform for the Albiceleste as he does for Barcelona.
The pressure on him going into Brazil 2014 as captain of Argentina is huge. To handle it Messi must be fully fit, well-rested and raring to go.
Messi himself is rightly playing it cool saying he won’t rush himself back into action. He told Argentina’s “Ole” sports newspaper he would only return to football when he’s fully recovered.
The forward added his recent spate of injuries is down to bad luck and he admits his misfortune has left him “sad and angry.”
As Messi kicks his heels on the road to recovery, another La Liga superstar continues to bask in the limelight.
Cristiano Ronaldo looks a shoe-in to land the coveted Ballon d’Or this year even though – unlike Messi – the Portuguese will end 2013 without a trophy.
He’s been scoring for fun for Los Blancos, Ronaldo has an incredible 35 goals in his last 25 appearances, but it’s his form for his country that suggests a growing maturity on the international stage.
His one–man demolition of Sweden really does say it all. He scored four goals over two legs to drag his compatriots all the way to Brazil, including a devastating hat-trick in Stockholm.
CR7 now has 10 goals in nine matches for Portugal in 2013. That’s the first time he’s ever reached double digits for his country in a calendar year.
The stage is now well and truly set for Ronaldo to have the tournament of his life in South America next year.
A fully-fit Messi raring to go in Brazil coming face to face with Ronaldo’s Portugal? Now that’s something I personally can’t wait for.