LONDON - The moment that defined Lionel Messi as the greatest player in the world came after 69 minutes of the Champions League Final on Saturday, rather than the 54th when he scored. That's how remarkable it was.
Having already made his mark as the outstanding player on the pitch and having scored a sublime goal to put Barcelona 2-1 ahead against Manchester United, the 23-year-old Argentine found himself wide on the right with his team attacking again.
The United defence stood firm to block his advance towards goal where he would no doubt inflict more damage on their already fragile and battered self-confidence.
The World Player of the Year, though, merely shimmied past them into space, providing the pass that led, almost inevitably, to David Villa's wonderfully struck, high curling shot that sealed Barcelona's 3-1 victory.
The way Messi moved, having the audacity to take on international defenders with such confidence, emphasised just how superior Barca were to United for almost all of the final apart from the opening 10 minutes when the English side saw more of the ball than they would for most of the next 80.
Messi still has a boyish look about him and it was almost as if he was back being the most gifted boy in the playground, dancing around opponents as if they were not there.
The performance not only earned Messi the Man of the Match award but moved the little forward another notch closer to the game's all-time greats Pele and fellow Argentine Diego Maradona.
Barca manager Pep Guardiola said: "Messi is the best player I've seen and probably the best I ever will see. We have great players but he makes the difference and without him we would not have that difference in quality. He is unique. A one-off."
Messi's Portuguese rival Cristiano Ronaldo, on the losing side when Barca knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League in the semi-finals, must have thought the same thing if he was watching the match on TV like hundreds of millions of others.
Messi's goal - his second against United in a Champions League final after his header in 2009 - was a brilliantly executed 20-metre left-foot curling shot that spun away from diving goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to put Barca back in front and really finished the game as a contest.
It was also, remarkably, his 53rd of the season, his 12th in the Champions League to equal the record set by Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2002/03 and means he has now topped the Champions League scoring charts for the last three seasons.
The intriguing thing about that statistic is that Messi is not an out-and-out centre-forward because Barcelona's approach echoes the way Hungary played in their golden years of the early 1950s and Ajax Amsterdam did in the era of 'Total Football'.
Hungary bamboozled opponents at the time when Nandor Hidegkuti played as a deep-lying centre-forward, leaving defenders perplexed about who to mark.
Johan Cruyff was nominally Ajax's target-man, but was in fact the creator who went all over the pitch, like Messi, deep into midfield, or wide on the flanks.
Fast forward 40 years to Saturday at Wembley and United's central defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were left marking empty spaces with Messi playing so far deep he was in his own half at times.
But then when he, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Villa burst through to attack, their wonderful passing leaves opponents straining every last muscle to prevent them running riot.
Many people, including Dutch great Marco van Basten, have called this Barca team the greatest club side of all time.
That may be a little premature considering Real Madrid's all-conquering side of the 1950s which won the first five European Cups, or the Ajax or Bayern Munich teams that won hat-tricks of titles.
But Van Basten is as good a judge as any, having been a European champion with AC Milan in 1989 and 1990, though he was no longer in the team that beat Barca 4-0 in 1994 - the last great exhibition in a European Cup final before Saturday.
Barcelona might yet have to emulate Milan's feat as the last team to win successive finals to start deserving that accolade.
But there is little doubt they can - and there is little doubt too that with good health and no serious injuries to stop him, Messi has many more years left to win many more honours.
He is already pulling up his chair to join the greats and may possibly end up taking a place at the head of the table.comments