Messi weaving his way past Pele and Maradona
Barcelona star doesn't need World Cup stage to prove his greatness, writes Paul Hayward
The redemptive act in a sometimes craven match was dream-like. Both sides surrendered to its power. Re-examine Lionel Messi's second goal against Real Madrid in Wednesday's Champions League semi-final first leg and you will see Jose Mourinho's defenders reduced to helplessness and awe.
On the evidence of the preceding 87 minutes, Messi should have been strong-armed, tripped, jostled or gang-tackled. Instead, when Sergio Busquets placed his sole on the ball and held it for Messi to collect, like a courtier keeping an item safe for a monarch, Real's Lassana Diarra reacted to the threat by raising his hands, as if to say: 'I must not interfere with what is about to happen'.
Messi ran straight, in the direction of the D on the edge of the penalty area, then darted right, which left Raul Albiol falling backwards, his legs tangled. Then the Pulga Atomica (Atomic Flea) ran behind Marcelo, who was similarly flummoxed, before Sergio Ramos rushed over to try to stop the shot and ended up tumbling comically towards the hoardings.
The real measure of Messi's brilliance, then, was not the run so much as the discombobulation, psychological and physical, of those employed to stop it. In the replay you sense not only confusion on the Real side but a kind of deference. With Pepe already dismissed, no Real player wanted to risk reducing the side to nine men with the score still 1-0 to Barcelona. Yet there was also a recognition that Messi is unplayable in those phases -- and so brilliant generally that even the finest opponents are forced to confront their mortality.
Without this solo flourish, Real would have travelled to Catalonia on Tuesday only 1-0 down and with a chance of making it through to the final at Wembley on May 28. Instead, the spectre of Messi again, this time on his home turf, is inescapable.
Before the tie Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, had entertained the media crowd with a melodramatic acknowledgement that in Spain's capital Mourinho was "the man" (expletive deleted). When the cannon smoke finally cleared the next day, the country's papers took their cue. Both El Mundo Deportivo and Sport described Messi as "el puto amo" on their front page, or 'the fucking man'. Barcelona's website opted for a more child-friendly translation: 'Messi is the bloody boss.'
Satisfyingly, the outrageous talent of the world's best footballer was the salvation in a game that displayed the sport as a branch of acting, and of politics. For an instant it restored more than 100 years of tradition (top players, trying to do great things) to its rightful place, above the machinations of coaches and thespians.
To imbue a goal with such quasi-religious significance may seem ludicrous, but we are at the point with Messi where admiration is universal (even in the Madrid defence), and mention of him alongside Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff is starting to feel obligatory rather than merely tempting. This season he has scored 52 times in 50 club outings. His 50th last weekend broke Ferenc Puskas's Spanish record of 49 from 1959-'60. With 179 in seven campaigns at the Camp Nou, Messi is already closing in, at 23 years of age, on Cesar Rodriguez's all-time Barcelona record of 235.
Arsene Wenger, who is among Messi's victims, says the Pele-Maradona echoes are authentic. "He is that good," the Arsenal manager says. "I have not seen all the football players, but for me he has qualities that are mental: humility, desire to play, happiness to help the team, always desire; you never see any bad reaction despite all the kicks he gets.
"When you look at the numbers, you have to kneel down and say they are fantastic. When a guy scores 52 goals in modern football and has 25 assists, when you see how difficult it is to score a goal, you just have to say it is absolutely exceptional what this player is delivering."
The old guard's defence against the premature elevation of gifted pups is that World Cups are the true stage for the sizing up of greatness, but that argument weakens with every year, and not just because FIFA has devalued the tournament Pele and Maradona graced by flogging it to Qatar.
"He's still only 22 and you have to maintain this level for many years to earn the right to be considered better than these giants," Ossie Ardiles, a Maradona contemporary, said last year. And that point still holds, because Pele and Maradona played for 21 seasons and Cruyff appeared in 20. With the Champions League, though, Messi is playing a mini-World Cup each year, combining rampant form in La Liga with consistent virtuosity against star-packed clubs from other countries in European competition.
If anyone has blocked his path to glory in the international arena it has been -- of all people -- Maradona, who squandered Argentina's rich resources in South Africa. Messi should have at least two more chances to add World Cup lustre to his club cv, which already features four La Liga titles, two Champions League crowns and a pair of world footballer of the years awards.
His first goal in Madrid was a striker's finish, close in, from a low cross; the second brought to mind a remark by Thierry Henry from his Barcelona days. "Like any great player he's a fighter, he can't lose."
Henry said: "During training sessions if his team is losing 2-1, he gets the ball, dribbles round everyone and scores, and we start again from scratch."
The player who can elect to change or kill a game, knowing his feet are packed with the talent to execute any move -- cause any sort of damage, at any moment -- is playing another sport to the mass of men who lack that capability. This is extrapolation, naturally, but when Busquets stopped the ball, like a servant, and Messi's little legs quickened to take possession it was as if he had seen enough of the ugliness in the game. Or maybe he had just had enough of Real Madrid. By any definition, that is power.
Sunday Indo Sport