Saturday, April 30, 2011

Maradona still No 1, but Messi closing in fast By Steven Howard

THE world stood still on Wednesday night – and so, seemingly, did a transfixed Real Madrid defence.

As Lionel Messi bore down on the Madrid goal, four players were left clutching at his coat-tails and grasping only thin air.

With the monumental balance that sets the great players apart, Messi stayed on his feet before sliding his shot past Iker Casillas.

Images of Diego Maradona slamming past six England players in the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico in 1986 flashed through your mind.

Messi’s was one of the finest goals in Champions League history and a club record 52nd of the season for the 5ft 7in Barcelona star. And a scarcely believable 179 in 264 games for the Catalans.

It immediately prompted one question: Is little Leo the best player of all time?

Not yet, he’s not.

I still go for Maradona, followed by Pele, Zinedine Zidane, then Messi followed by Johan Cruyff and the Brazilian Ronaldo.

But if Argentina win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, he will be.

By then, he will be 26. The same age Maradona was when he virtually won the World Cup single-handedly a quarter of a century ago.

Already, his credentials as one of the top six are unimpeachable.

The youngest Argentine player ever to appear in the World Cup, two Champions League winner’s medals, four La Liga titles and the world player of the year in 2009 and 2010.

Plus 55 caps for his country. And he’s still, incredibly, just 23.

Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola says of him: ‘It’s frightening. At 23, he’s already the third-highest goalscorer at a club that is 100 years old.

‘We are lucky to have him. Put in your own superlatives – I’ve run out.’

Luis Figo, the Portuguese winger who played for both Barca and Real Madrid, took it to a new level when he said: ‘To watch Messi is like having an orgasm. An incredible pleasure.’

Thanks for that, Luis.

But the greatest tribute of all came from Maradona, Messi’s idol and still the hero of every Argentinian.

A few years ago, he said: ‘I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentina football and his name is Lionel Messi.’

There have been a number of ‘new’ Maradonas down the years but they have all wilted under the pressure of carrying such a burden.

None has had either the physical power or the mental strength that sets Messi apart. And the explosive pace, the low centre of gravity that makes it so hard to knock him out of his stride, the strength of shot in both feet and his anticipation in the box.

He has many years to rewrite the record books. And to be unanimously acclaimed as the finest of all time.

At the moment, though, Maradona is at the summit of football’s Mount Olympus. Yes, at 23, he had only a Copa del Rey to his name at Barcelona after joining from Boca Juniors for a world record £5 million. Hepatitis and a broken leg at the hands of Andoni Goikoetxea, the Butcher of Bilbao, plagued his time at the Nou Camp.

After he moved to Napoli for £6.9 million in 1984, they won the Italian title for the only two times in their history.

But what sets Maradona apart is his courage. Every hatchet man in Italian football was out to get him – and they did. He was only able to continue with massive injections of cortisone.

But still he took Argentina to the 1986 World Cup and that second goal against England was voted goal of the century. He again carried Argentina to the World Cup final four years later in Italy.

Pele, of course, is acclaimed by many as the real No1. A World Cup winner at just 17, he would win three in all and score more than 1,200 goals. His dribbling, touch and vision made him the outstanding player in the celebrated 1970 Brazil World Cup-winning team.

And then Zidane and Cruyff.

The Frenchman was the most outstanding player of his generation and a triple world player of the year in 1998, 2000 and 2003.

A World Cup and European Championship winner, he could do things with a ball that made you blink. His volley for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final was skill at its rarest.

Cruyff was a purist’s delight, star of the Dutch Total Football side of the Seventies and the Ajax team that won three European Cups.

His control and balance and getaway speed tormented defenders. And, finally, Ronaldo – Il Fenomeno.

Like Maradona, a man of supreme power matched only by his courage. In his only season at Barcelona, he scored 47 goals in 49 games.

Later in Italy, he twice came back from career-threatening injuries and was the most prolific scorer in World Cup history with Brazil.

Football, of course, has been blessed with so many incredible talents. Northern Ireland’s George Best was a genius only held back by never playing in a World Cup. For England, there was Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore. For France, Michel Platini. For Portugal, Eusebio and Figo.

The Germans can boast Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Lothar Matthaeus and Jurgen Klinsmann. Holland, as well as Cruyff, have Johan Neeskens, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit.

The Italians will trumpet Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Bettega and Gianni Rivera. And, finally, we have Spain’s current World Cup kings Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas.

It is a list of footballing royalty. And yet, in our midst, we could well be watching a man who could eventually be the most accomplished of all.

Leo Messi, the world is at your twinkling feet.

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