LONDON - At the age of 23, Barcelona's
Lionel Messi has already come to define an era of European football in a way only a handful of players have managed since the
days of Alfredo di Stefano.
Right now, as he prepares for Saturday's Champions League Final against Manchester United, Messi is undisputedly the
world's best, though he may have to win a World Cup to secure a
place alongside all-time greats Pele and Diego Maradona.
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In the Champions League, his 11 goals in 12 matches make him
the top scorer this season and the most recent of them, a
virtuoso run and shot in the semi-final first leg against Real
Madrid, took the breath away for sheer technique and timing.
His total for the season in all competitions is a staggering
52 and when you consider his value to the team goes far beyond
the goals he scores himself, he is clearly the man the English
side must fear most on Saturday.
"Right now Messi is the player who makes the difference,"
Barcelona midfielder Xavi told El Pais this week.
"He is a phenomenon for the team: he scores goals, plays the
final ball, comes into midfield to help create superiority and
understands the game, something which maybe he found harder
It is a little over 10 years since Messi stepped off a plane
in Barcelona as a slight 13-year-old and met youth team coach
Carles Rexach, who according to legend made the player his first
contract offer on a paper napkin.
Still possessed of boyish looks and floppy hair, he already
boasts a formidable record for his club.
This will be Barcelona's third final since Messi made his
Champions League debut but a thigh injury kept him out of the
first of them, a 2-1 victory over Arsenal in Paris in 2006.
He was in the team that overwhelmed Manchester United in the
2009 final in Rome, hanging in the air to score the second goal
of a 2-0 win with a looping header - not bad for a player who
needed growth hormone treatment after moving from Argentina and
stands at a modest 1.69 metres.
His form over the past three years in Europe has been
devastating, thanks to his skill and invention on the ball,
coupled with a Houdini-like ability to work magic in the most
He has topped the Champions League scoring charts for the
past three seasons and has produced performances that have at
times defied belief.
The highlight was the four-goal masterclass he provided to
secure victory over Arsenal in last season's quarter-finals but
that was far from the only time he has set pulses racing at
Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium and beyond.
In the Champions League era, which began in 1992, it is hard
to think of another player who has marked the competition so
There are players who have enjoyed more success - Clarence
Seedorf has won the competition four times with three different
teams since 1995 and Raul is just one of a bunch of Real Madrid
players with three titles.
Samuel Eto'o also has three, yet perhaps only Zinedine
Zidane, a one-time winner with that sublime volley in the 2002
final, has made such an indelible mark as Messi.
You have to go back further to find players who have had a
Paco Gento played in Real Madrid's six wins from 1956-60 and
in 1966 but that era will be forever remembered as belonging to
Di Stefano, with five titles, and Ferenc Puskas with three.
Like Messi, Di Stefano was an Argentine whose genius
flowered after a move to Spain. Those who saw him play remember
how he would charge the length of the pitch with the ball at his
feet, playing his own irresistible brand of total football.
Eusebio finished his career with just one winner's medal but
played in four finals and was the first great player to follow
Real Madrid's early period of dominance.
Johan Cruyff helped Ajax Amsterdam to three successive
trophies from 1971-73, a feat matched by the equally influential
Franz Beckenbauer for Bayern Munich from 1974-76.
Since then players such as Kenny Dalglish of Liverpool,
Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit of AC Milan and of course their
team mate Paolo Maldini, who won the competition five times in
total as European Cup and Champions League, have made
contributions that will live long in the memory.
Van Basten was quoted earlier this year as describing the
current Barcelona side as the greatest of all time, better even
than the Ajax of Cruyff or the Milan team he graced himself.
If they are, it is down in large part to Messi - a player
already synonymous with all that is good about the Champions
League and who one day may be remembered as the best there has
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