Lionel Messi.
Lionel Messi. Tony Marshall - SMP Images

Messi or Maradona: part one

WHETHER we like it or not club football has now left international football behind and, as a result, the Champions League is at least as important as the World Cup. That is why Leo Messi's domination of the European Cup is every bit as significant as the mark Diego Maradona left on Mexico 86.

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Think about the image of that soaring header in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, with Rio Ferdinand and an aghast Edwin van der Sar looking on. A moment preceded by the talk of him not being great in the air, and followed immediately by his boot falling off as - so the scientists tell us - his body shrunk for a split second as the super-human effort shot through his 5ft 7in frame.

Think about the same scenario two years later at Wembley as he lashed in Barcelona's second goal against Manchester United, putting his foot through the ball from the edge of the area and then racing across to do the same to the corner flag in uncharacteristic wild celebration.

Messi owns the Champions League, at the age of just 24.

That goal in last year's final was his 12th in last season's competition. This season he has 12 before the quarter-final stage. Injuries allowing, he will finish his career having won the Champions League, and scored in it, more often than any other player.

The World Cup question will have to wait until Brazil 2014 but, in the meantime, two myths about Messi, Maradona and World Cup finals needs debunking: one is that Messi did nothing in 2010 and the other is that Maradona won Mexico 86 on his own.

Brilliant individual efforts from Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga beat West Germany, albeit with the latter strike coming from a Maradona pass. Diego was for the most part nullified by Lothar Matthäus in the Azteca Stadium and without his team-mates he would not have lifted the trophy.

In 21 World Cup games, Maradona scored eight goals and he was 26 when he lifted the trophy - Messi will be 27 in Brazil in two years' time. In South Africa, Messi was unfortunate. On the pitch he hit the post more times than any other player and off it he had Maradona running the team - the great man's coaching shortcomings laid bare by Germany and that 4-0 defeat. Yet his overall performances were as good as Maradona's at the same age in Spain in 1982.

Maradona led his country in Mexico 86 but Messi leads his club every season in the Champions League. He may not puff his chest out Diego-style as he walks out on to the pitch but he is the quiet leader who always delivers.

Pep Guardiola says of Barcelona's No 10: "There are different types of leadership. When things get difficult, Messi steps up. He has done it right throughout the last four years. It is a silent leadership; in adversity he always comes forward."

Last season in the Champions League when Jose Mourinho's plan to smother Barcelona seemed to be working in the first home leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, it was Messi's brace that in the space of a few minutes put the tie beyond Real Madrid. His four goals against Arsenal two seasons ago led ArsEne Wenger to label him the "playstation player", and having led his team to the final he always delivers in those final 90 minutes that decide who lifts the trophy.

He also chested the ball into the back of the net - scoring with the Barcelona badge as BarAa supporters like to remember it - in the World Club championship in 2009 against Estudiantes, when the team won the tournament for the first time ever. Another big final, another match-deciding goal.

Separating them as players is difficult. It is true Maradona made Napoli champions and thrived in an era when flair players were largely unprotected. But Messi moving to a different country, aged 13, was a character test which Maradona never had to pass. And as the defenders bouncing off him every week prove, Messi hardly needs the match official protection he and all players now receive.

On his first day at Barcelona, remembers team-mate Marcos Alonso, Maradona kicked his rolled-up socks-off the bench in the dressing room and did 300 keepy-ups. The only Messi first- day anecdotes are of a shy boy in awe of his surroundings. Messi has never had that brash showmanship, but once he crosses the line and the whistle blows he matches the man he now looks like replacing as the greatest of all time.

If he holds the World Cup aloft in Rio, there really will be no debate but even without international glory his domination of the greatest club competition in the world, at a time when club football is so much in the ascendancy, has him as Guardiola says - sat on the throne, crowned football's greatest.

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