Refreshed Lionel Messi ready for record year

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Lionel Messi hasn't had a rest for two years, and still he put together an 80-goal season - one of the greatest individual tallies of all-time.

Prior to this summer, for the past two seasons, the reigning World Player of the Year has kept his boots laced up after his last game at the Nou Camp, and donned the Argentina shirt for a couple of extra months of hard graft.

Of course, playing for your country is one of the greatest honours - at least it should be - but after a gruelling league campaign, an energy-sapping international tournament leaves little margin for error, either physically or mentally.

Messi found this out when he competed at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, as Argentina crashed out to Germany 4-0 in the quarter-finals. The next summer Messi played on home soil in the Copa America, but once again defeat at the quarter-final stage made it a summer to forget.

His off-season in 2008 was also taken up with the Olympics, although Messi did return from Beijing with a gold medal that year - a rare success in the Blue and White. But, for the past couple of seasons, the Argentine has not had a proper rest, and not completed a proper pre-season.

Speaking to El Mundo Deportivo, Messi said: "I haven't been able to do a good pre-season for a long time because I always arrived late. It has been very good to have such a long rest."

Not that Messi has allowed a lack of a pre-season to get in his way. His goal tally's after competing in international tournaments include 38 goals after the Olympics, 53 after the World Cup, and 73 after Copa America.

His record last season was monumental, his performances so consistently brilliant it became routine. He seemed to be single-handedly dragging one of the world's best teams through matches, such was the extent to which he dominated the ball.

Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas are all fantastic players, and would be the best on almost any team apart from Barcelona. But, with Messi in the side they merely facilitate his excellence, at least they did last season.

The Catalans failed to reach the heights set in previous seasons, as the run of La Liga titles came to an end, the Champions League ended in bitter defeat, and their master manager Pep Guardiola announced his resignation.

Only Messi improved, scaling heights not reached since the days of Maradona and Pele. Whether he's surpassed these two titans of the game is open to debate, but it is certainly a legitimate question.

Perhaps, it is not a question of if, but when he becomes the greatest ever, especially when Argentina look to have an outstanding young team coming through - World Cup glory in Brazil 2014 could be his coronation.

This summer, Messi's enjoyed his rest, relaxing on holiday with Carlos Tevez before returning to pre-season training with his club. And Tito Vilanova's reign will need a fully-fit and functioning Messi to challenge Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid.

Barca's success will be defined relative to Real Madrid, and Jose Mourinho's team look to be equally as strong next year as they were this.

Despite missing their friendly against Hamburg - and saving the Germans a ton of appearance money - Barca insist Messi will be fit for the new season, beginning on August 18.

The first El Clasico is not till October, plenty of time for the respective giants to size one another up, and for fans and commentators to build the match up to epic proportions.

But with two months rest under his belt, Messi may feel it's well within his ability to match, even beat, his record 73-goal haul next season.

It seems almost absurd to think it. He broke so many records last season, scored eight league hat-tricks, another three Champions League hat-tricks and bagged 50 league goals - how can he possibly reproduce such brilliance again.

But if he did off the back of a gruelling Copa America campaign, going without an extended break for almost 24 months, what can he achieve after taking such a long break?

A century of goals, perhaps? He cracked the 80-goal mark last year - including internationals - and although Argentina won't be playing in next summer's Confederations Cup, they still have a handful of friendly matches organised during the season.

Messi won't publicly come out and set such outrageous targets, if only for the fact that it makes other player's goal tallies look a little embarrassing by comparison.

But, privately he must be keen for Barca to get back to winning ways. Last season, the glory was individual, as the Catalans ended up empty-handed - Copa Del Rey aside - but Messi smashed record-after-record.

Having been so used to success, so accustomed to attending the trophy parades, last season was something of an unexpected aberration.

And next year, Barca will be desperate to get back at Real Madrid. With such motivation, and with no international commitments, Barcelona and Messi will be primed and ready to hit the ground running next season.

And if that turns out to be case, it's hard to see Real Madrid having much of a chance.

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