Messi shimmies his way to more greatness

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.

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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.

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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.

CURLING SHOT

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'.