‘If you’re lucky, you might find a player like this every quarter of a century’
Published 08/04/2010 | 05:00
The legend at the Nou Camp which reads "mes que un club" (more than a club) has now found its embodiment. For Lionel Messi is more than just a football player.
Superlatives have been exhausted, the thesaurus is dog-eared and so when it comes to conjuring up increasingly grand descriptions of the Argentine, commentators and supporters have turned to the other-worldly, the extraterrestrial. It is as if they are talking about an alien.
But then in modern football Messi, only 22, is something of an alien concept, almost a freak. His gifts are not of physique and power and blistering pace -- though hardly a slouch and hardly lacking in strength -- but of football as a game pinned down by skill, ball control, trickery, instinct, of a craft learned playing in the street.
And the most humbling thing about that is the way in which his team-mates talk of him. "Already words are not enough for this footballer," said Barcelona full-back Daniel Alves in the wake of the destruction of Arsenal.
"Every day he surprises us with a different thing and it's a huge privilege to have him here," Alves added. "The most important thing is that he is always there to decide a game. We play great football, but when it comes to killing a game off Leo's always there. For that reason, he is simply the best in the world.
"We never get fed up talking about Messi, we also speak about him all the time. It's not just the media who talk about him. We are totally in agreement with the journalists and we are amazed at the form he is in and his greatness."
When modern-day managers such as Jose Mourinho take to the measuring tape to record the height of players and their athletic prowess, cooing over the likes of Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, it is almost a cause for celebration that the finest of them all can point to his feet as the source of his success.
As ever it takes a player who is (almost) his equal to best sum up where Messi is right now in the firmament of football. "Leo is on another level completely from every other player in the world," Xavi said. "He is in a different class. If you are lucky, you might find a player like this coming along every quarter of a century. To hit four goals in a match like this is outrageous."
It was all that and more. Not just for the quality of the goals, but for their rich variety, which demonstrated not only Messi's skill but his "killer" instinct.
Both Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger latched on to Theo Walcott's description from the first leg at the Emirates of Messi as a "PlayStation" player, appearing to be controlled by another force. And in that variety there is evidence of that -- a powerful whipped shot, a slalomed run, a dink over the goalkeeper, a low drive through his legs. At this rate the joystick will come unhinged as Messi challenges the dexterity of whatever God controls him.
And in Xavi's description -- a player such as this coming along every 25 years -- there is a neat time frame (with due deference to Zinedine Zidane), with Diego Maradona a shade over that boundary, the player who Messi is challenging as the greatest in recent times.
To do so fully, Messi must do it on the international stage and the World Cup in South Africa beckons
this summer, with Maradona as Argentina's coach. Win that and there is no debate.
The role Guardiola and the rest of the Barca team play in Messi's success should be noted. Indeed, the coach pointed out: "There is a lot of effort behind him, how we pressure opponents and we free him up and influence his game."
It is a telling contribution to this debate. Last summer Guardiola lectured at a coaching conference. The title of his talk was "Recovering Possession" and he has an obsessive insistence about pressuring opponents further up the field, thereby running less, and retaining the ball when it is won. Against Arsenal there were awesome examples of work-rate in Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Seydou Keita. The goals against Wenger's team contributed to Messi's first hat-trick in the Champions League but it will surely not be his last. He is the man for the big occasion, as was seen in last year's final; he is indisputably the best right now.
And there is another thing that endears him to all. His remarkable humility. "The most important thing is not who does it but that the team does it," he said on Tuesday. True. But this Barca side are more than just a team, and he is more than just its star player. (© Daily Telegraph, London)