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