AN IMAGE moves, he slithers with the ball seemingly glued to his feet. Surrounded by players he shakes free, defying all logic and physics. He powers goal-bound, with the ball, of course under total control. Twisting, turning, dragging and sliding through the smallest of gaps as he leaves everyone else in his wake.
His name, Lionel Messi. An Argentine, who has achieved so much in his short but sensational career, twinkling feet and dazzling dribbling, whose majestic skill and tenacious finishing took this years UEFA Champions League Final to dizzy heights.
Simply a genius, he lit up Wembley with an onslaught of talent and an abundance of charisma, an irresistible blend of urgency and quality.
His display was enough to cement a place at the top of the footballing roster and claim his position as the world’s greatest footballer. But is he greater than great?
It was billed the ‘game of the decade’, a game for the worlds most talented to stand up and be counted. Maradona – a true footballing great – had declared Messi was now equal but could the Argentine live up to the crackerjack hype?
The world waited with baited breath for confirmation. Messi duly obliged.
Not so long ago, his football boots read La Mano de Dios – Spanish for ‘Hand of God’ – a mere tribute to his fellow countryman and idol. Like any young, rising Argentine talent he would have been handed the burden of living up to the legend Maradona, but most fall by the wayside.
This season, and on Saturday in particular, Messi not only lived up to the title, he ignited a bigger debate – is he actually greater than Maradona? A Spanish title, a European cup and 53 goals in 55 games would certainly go some way to suggesting maybe.
It would take just 27 minutes for the Argentine to take hold of the Champions League Final. The maestro, mesmeric with the ball at his feet continually had United on the back foot as he dropped deep to confuse the likes of Carrick, Ferdinand and Vidic.
Iniesta’s telepathy was the mere product of Messi’s previous brilliance; his pass found Pedro who netted in emphatic style. Catalonia erupted.
United rode the carousel that was Barcelona’s glittering football well and surprisingly responded quickly, their goal created and made with similarly precious, scintillating football.
Wayne Rooney, in imperious form at the business end of the season took hold of the game. A ray of light in the shadow of Messi and arguably the only United player that would come close to breaking into the Barcelona side – in fairness, the only real superstar at Old Trafford.
When his chance came, it was grasped with both hands and taken in resounding style.
With the sense that this was the time for a player who had never scored in a World Cup match and who, by his own admission, had failed to turn up to both his previous European Cup finals. United fans began to once again believe.
Finally Rooney had struck on the major stage, unfortunately for the Scouser who harnessed his skills on the back streets of Liverpool, he was to be upstaged by a 23 year-old from Rosario, Buenos Aires.
There was nothing he could do to stop Messi stealing the show. Rooney offered plenty of magic. Messi even more.
Messi’s goal, his first on English soil, a fierce shot past a startled Edwin Van Der Sar. The Duchman could have done better, but that can’t detract from the all round brilliance of Messi, twisting and turning, running at the United defence as they backing off mesmerised by the Argentines quick feet. If you give him too much space he’ll punish you. No excuses from United players or fans. From here it would be an uphill challenge. United would need some 1999-esque brilliance to salvage anything.
Sir Alex made one last bold push. His United team rarely know when they are beaten and his change saw Fabio make way for Nani. It’s the Fergie way. It’s all he knows.
But again Messi would seize the moment. He made two of the worlds best centre backs look like school boys. They had no answer for the quality and magic of Xavi, linking up with Iniesta finding the striker seemingly effortlessly. It was an enduring image leaving them staring amazed, hands on their hips, disempowered.
He dealt the final blow minutes after Ferguson had made his final role of the dice. Another purposeful dart into the United area allowed him to set up David Villa for Barcelona’s third and the final nail in United’s coffin.
It’s not one moment of magic, or even 10, it’s the continual moments of sheer brilliance from this 23 year-old that sets him a world apart from any other player.
Indeed, the Barcelona philosophy personified by the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Pique and Sergio Busquets and enhanced by Messi’s genius makes them a team among the greatest in history.
David Villa, Spain’s talisman. Iniesta, scorer of the winning goal in the World Cup and Xavi the third best player in the world two years running are great assets to any team. But Messi is something else.
It was a spectacle Sir Matt Busby would have looked down on with a sparkle in his eye, the Spaniards as beautiful as their teams’ history. For United it wasn’t to be a repeat of the emotional 1968 Wembley triumph, for Barcelona it would mark a second Champions League in three years. A truly remarkable feat.
Despite his talent Messi may have to wait until he wins the World Cup for Argentina before being crowned ‘greater than great’. Until such a time, he is second to Maradona. For now Messi will continue to bring an altogether different kind of pleasure to the world – the one that comes with watching someone special effortlessly tear defences apart, the intent being simply to captivate with incomprehensible beauty.
Few will now doubt that Messi isn’t the world’s greatest footballer, many will contest he’s the best of all time. Fewer will deny that Barcelona are one of the greatest footballing sides the world has ever seen.