Magician Messi the best of his time but is Barca star the greatest ever?

Lionel Messi graces the famous Wembley turf tonight with his claims for sporting immortality getting stronger by the achievement. Nick Westby reports.

There have been many before him – Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme among them – but few have quite lived up to the mantle of the great Diego Maradona as impressively as Lionel Messi.

Such is the spell cast on Argentinian football by Maradona, the South American nation is forever trying to unearth another majestic force.

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Messi is the man who has come closest.

The low centre of gravity, the mazy runs, the power, the ball as if on a string, the awareness, the strength, the ability to change direction in an instant, the magical left foot. The list of similarities is lengthy.

He has been on the radar of world football since 2004 as the latest to carry the burden of being Argentina’s, and the globe’s, next Maradona.

He beguiled us with his touch and his vision, and even his refreshingly sporting behaviour.

But it was not until his inspirational, goalscoring performance in Barcelona’s 2-0 Champions League final win over Manchester United that he was catapulted from pretender to the throne of king of the world.

Fast-forward two years and not only is Messi the best in the world, he is lauded by some as the best ever.

It is easy to forget that Messi is just 23. Yet already we have almost run out of superlatives for a player who first captivated Spanish football as a 17-year-old and has been lighting up the sport ever since.

To hail him as better than Pele and Maradona is a serious claim. Perhaps even the likes of Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio and Zico could justifiably bristle at the suggestion he is already the finest in history.

Yet when Ossie Ardiles, a team-mate and friend of the legendary Maradona, is unequivocal in his claim that Messi is the greatest, the world should sit up and take note.

“I think there is only one player you can compare with Messi and that is Maradona,” Ardiles said.

“In many ways they are very similar. For some time I thought that Diego could never be surpassed – and nor could Pele – but no longer.

“I would now say that Lionel Messi will go down in history as the No 1 player of all time, the best that there ever was.

“The big difference is that Maradona and Pele played in a time when pressures were less intense than they are now. Messi is under pressure all the time, and has to play in incredibly high-intensity games all of the time, the Champions League being the perfect example.”

Indeed, the cauldron of the Champions League was all too evident on April 27 in the Santiago Bernabeu, when Barca clashed with bitter rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of their European semi-final.

The anticipated footballing feast proved bitter and hard to stomach, destined to be remembered for spiteful challenges, gamesmanship, Madrid’s negative tactics and the failure of the world’s finest to show their worth.

But cometh the hour, cometh the man.

With 14 minutes left and Jose Mourinho seemingly set to secure the draw he wanted, Messi stepped up to the plate in dramatic style.

Firstly, showing intelligence and the killer instinct cultivated under Pep Guardiola in his three years at the helm, he timed his run perfectly to deftly convert the crucial opening goal from Ibrahim Afellay’s tantalising right-wing cross.

Then, with the bit between his teeth and three minutes left, when most teams would ‘park the bus’ in defence of a slender lead, Messi took the ball off a team-mate’s toe and threw caution to the wind, scurrying and slaloming through the Madrid defence to score a goal which had even neutral spectators off their sofas.

The goal took his tally for the season to an astonishing 52 in all competitions and moved him up to third in Barca’s all-time list of record goalscorers with 179 strikes, leaving him behind only Cesar Rodriguez (235) and Ladislao Kubala (194).

Guardiola is effusive in his praise of Messi’s performance that night when revelling in his star’s second goal.

“It’s not the first time he’s done that, he has a wonderful ability to take players on,” the coach said.

But is he yet, or will he ever be the greatest of them all?

The only black mark against Messi’s name so far, and the one that perhaps keeps him on the rung just below Maradona and Pele, is his anonymity at last summer’s World Cup. No goals were scored at the end of his mazy dribbles in South Africa. He could not elevate his nation like he does his club.

Pele inspired Brazil to World Cup triumph on three occasions, Maradona, wonderfully and controversially so in 1986.

Messi has dominated domestic finals and leagues like football’s two icons did in their pomp, but he has yet to do so on the international stage.

The World Cup in Brazil in 2014 may present him with his best opportunity to do that. Time is on his side, though, and tonight could be another chapter in his journey to those esteemed ranks.

The path taken by argentina’s brightest star

1987: June 24, Born Lionel Andres Messi in Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina.

1982: Starts playing for Granoli, a local team coached by his father Jorge.

1995: Joins Newell’s Old Boys.

1998: Diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency.

2000: Moves to Barcelona, aged 13 after the club agree to pay for his medication.

2003: November 16 – Makes first-team debut in friendly against Porto, aged 16.

2004: October 16 – Debuts for Barcelona, aged 17 years 144 days, in 1-0 derby win at Espanyol.

2005: May 1 – Becomes youngest player to score for Barcelona by netting against Albacete.

2005: June – Named player of the tournament as Argentina win World Youth Championship in Holland.

2005: August 17 – Sent off two minutes into Argentina debut against Hungary.

2006: May – Helps Barca reach Champions League final, although he misses out on due to injury.

2006: June 16 – Becomes youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup with substitute appearance against Serbia & Montenegro. Nets final goal in 6-0 win.

2007: July – Young player of the tournament as Argentina reach Copa America final.

2008: Barca allow Messi to play for Argentina in Olympics. They win gold.

2009: Scores second goal as Barcelona beat Manchester United 2-0 to win Champions League final. Wins Ballon d’Or

2010: Helps Argentina reach last eight of World Cup.

2011: Wins FIFA Ballon d’Or in January and helps Barca reach Champions League final.