'Leo' stakes his claim as the perfect '10'
APOLOGIES to Senor Joan Laporta. When the Barcelona president recently described Lionel Messi as the greatest footballer the world had ever seen, even his team's coach Pep Guardiola felt the boss should have kept his mouth zipped, so wildly premature did such praise seem.
Yet on a night when every one of the 98,000 crowd -- yes, even the Arsenal fans -- felt privileged to witness one of football's great individual tours de force, we were suddenly forced to acknowledge again that this little Argentine may yet find a place in the most revered section of the pantheon alongside those other perfect 10s, his compatriot Maradona and the peerless Pele.
The boy is just 22, but what he is achieving is defying credibility. Last week, he was excoriated at the Emirates for having a quiet night during Barcelona's exquisite demonstration. Yet that ignored the constant state of panic he induced with every piercing run he made.
Last night, it was as if he was determined to make every foolhardy critic pay for the temerity of suggesting that he had underperformed. And if the measure of the very finest footballers is that they can deliver when the stakes are at their highest, then Messi proved he is a true champion.
For, make no mistake, Barcelona's equilibrium was seriously disturbed by that opening Nicklas Bendtner goal. For a while it had all gone swimmingly for Barca, Xavi pulling the strings as master puppeteer, so that even Arsenal's urgency did not disturb them unduly.
But after the goal, they seemed in the slightest disarray, the defenders looking accusingly at each other and to the referee, as if they could hardly believe they were suddenly behind in a tie they had utterly dominated.
In a recent television film which had seen cameras trained on Guardiola for an entire game, one of the most revealing moments had been when the coach, finding Barca rocked by a Real Zaragoza goal, turned to one man to grab the rest of the players by the scruff of the neck. "Leo...Leo...get us together!" he had screamed.
Now we know why. Xavi, sublime again last night, may be the orchestra's conductor.
All eyes flit to him and whether in doubt or decisive thought, all passes seem to be directed to him only to be controlled and, in a visionary instant, recycled to build another attack.
Yet he is just Brains; sometimes, you need Scott Tracy too. So, within a couple of minutes, Thunderbird One came to the rescue.
He needed a little help from Mikel Silvestre's shin, but the rest was pure genius, a left-footed snapshot which sped past Manuel Almunia like a tracer. Then it was exhibition time.
Weaving in from both flanks, necessitating desperate lunges from three defenders trying to stop him, then a clinical finish with his right foot and a delightful dink for his hat-trick which was so remarkably executed that he was not even looking when Almunia advanced on him, but knew instinctively when and how to beat him.
He should have scored another when freed just before half-time, causing gasps of incredulity when he failed to control the ball.
It brought a few comical observations from a hypnotised press box on the lines of 'what a load of rubbish' but, for his final trick he smashed a fourth straight between Almunia's legs. One presumes it was deliberate!
So, Messi has now scored 28 goals in his last 24 games for Barcelona. Yet, even more astonishing than that strike rate is the fact that he makes as many as he scores.
As Guardiola had screamed after he had scored a similar hat-trick against Zaragoza: "This boy is from a different galaxy. He's from a different world!"
Nobody was about to argue with that after this demonstration of greatness. (© Daily Telegraph, London)