Lionel Messi would thrive at Man City but he needs pace around him to adapt to the Premier League aged 33

THESE Fifa player of the year awards are all very well, but can he do it on a wet Wednesday night in the West Midlands?

It is a question – perhaps a veiled accusation – that some English fans have been asking for ages about Lionel Messi.

And the events of the last few days – with Messi making it clear that he wants to leave Barcelona and Manchester City in pole position to sign him – mean that we can at least dream that we are close to getting an answer.

There is something unfair about the question.

With the exception of the 2018-19 season, the Premier league clubs have hardly cleaned up in Europe, and the Europa League has provided evidence that the Spanish championship has more strength in depth than sometimes assumed.

Also, Messi has produced plenty of fine displays against English clubs in the Champions League – even in defeat in last year’s semi-final against Liverpool he was outstanding in both legs.

And although he is now 33 there seems no reason to believe that he is unable to shine at the top level.

True, he might be past his athletic peak. The little burst of acceleration that leaves three defenders stranded might be a rarer sight these days.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the range of his talent.

Messi’s old Barcelona and Argentina team-mate Javier Mascherano once made a comment of great precision.

Almost all players are controlled by the game – but Messi controls it.

It often seems that he is playing while also sitting in the best seat in the house.

He has remarkable vision and capacity to read the game, the intelligence to find the space on the field where he can be most dangerous.

And in addition to the river of goals that he scores, he is also one of the best passers of a ball that football has ever seen.

As he gets older, then, it is easy to imagine him dropping deeper, operating in a role where extreme pace is not so important.

True, the Premier League would present him with new challenges.

If this was the 1980s, when rough tackling was still permitted and the pitches were often dreadful, then it might be difficult to shine.

Even on today’s billiards tables, with referees looking to protect the skilful player, Messi would have to deal with the relentless physicality of a tough championship.

Messi may have reached a stage where, in the conditions of the Premier League, he is not able to play every game.

The collective context would be important.

The story of last month’s crashing 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich is one of a Barcelona side that had aged together and re-enforced badly.

In his prime Luis Suarez was magnificent on the shoulders of the last defender, forcing the opposing line back and creating space for Messi.

But Suarez has slowed down – and Barca had no pace up front. Bayern, then, could press with total aggression.

The clinching goal, Bayern’s fifth, came when the left-back reached the by-line and pulled across for the right-back to score from inside the six-yard box.

Bayern could charge forward with impunity, squeezing Messi’s space and reducing his effectiveness.

The little wizard has reached a stage in his career when he needs to be surrounded with pace, to open up the field, create room for him and give him options.

He may also have reached a stage where, in the conditions of the Premier League, he is not able to play every game.

He is known for not wanting to be rested.

But to keep him fresh for the big matches, it may now be necessary to give him an occasional break.

That would be hard on those fans who buy tickets for the games that he misses – everyone would want to see him, including fans of the opposing team – but worthwhile so that we can all enjoy him for longer.

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