Mesmeric Messi has defined European era

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 before."

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.

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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 confined spaces.

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 memorably.

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 greater influence.

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 ever been.


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