LIAM MACKEY: Boy wonder’s famous five

For the guts of an hour or so there on Tuesday night, we were all Gooners — all, at least, bar the supporters of AC Milan and, I presume, Spurs.

Four-nil down from the first leg in the San Siro and with their Champions League aspirations seemingly dead and buried, Arsenal staged a thrilling recovery which fell agonisingly short of the one goal they needed to level up the tie. But, in this star-crossed season for Arsene Wenger’s men, here at least was an heroic failure which carried a fair old feelgood factor.

Or at least it did for approximately another 24 hours, by which time Barcelona’s dazzling demolition of Bayer Leverkusen had reminded you of how right Cesc Fabregas was to swap the Emirates for the Nou Camp. And that’s Barca for you: they can simultaneously intoxicate and sober you up like no other side in world football.

In any other week, the big European stories would have been the Gunners’ near miss, Apoel Nicosia’s fairytale shootout win over Lyon or the embarrassment of both Manchester teams losing in the Europa League — as if the embarrassment of actually being in the Europa League in the first place wasn’t bad enough.

But all were eclipsed on Wednesday night by Lionel Messi, as the boy wonder made Champions League history by scoring five goals in one game to bring his competitive tally for Barca this season to an eye-watering 48 goals in 42 games.

By a happy scheduling coincidence, the highlights of Messi’s dream game on ITV were followed on a sister channel by a delicious hour-long documentary titled Lionel Messi — World’s Greatest Player. The main points of his story are well-known by now, of course: the move from Argentina to Barcelona aged just 14; the course of growth hormone injections designed to accelerate his physical development; his senior debut for the club, having just turned 18, as partner to Ronaldinho in 2005; then Pep Guardiola’s conviction that he was already good enough to replace the Brazilian as the club’s superstar — and the rest is a saga of ever more staggering stats and superlatives.

So maybe there was nothing startlingly new in the documentary but the whole thing was still worth the price of admission alone for the astonishing home movie footage of Messi as a tiny tot playing almost exactly as the world knows he can play today — speeding the length of the pitch, past one player after another after another, before planting the ball in the back of the net.

That seemingly innate talent to retain total mastery of a football at full pace and in the face of repeated tackles still defines the performances of the 24-year-old today, although he has obviously learned so much more in the years since then, including an acute positional sense, the importance of his role in team play and, happily, ever more novel and sublime ways to supply the finishing touch.

There’s also the fact that, often undervalued because of his talent on the ball, Messi’s workrate off it is prodigious — in common with the rest of his Barca team mates, he understands that to win a game, you must first win the ball, and there’s absolutely nothing of the hands-on-hips luxury player about the man they call ‘The Flea’ when sleeves have to be rolled up and a shift put it.

And the other striking thing about Messi, in this era of the Balotelli scowl and the Tevez no-show, is that he is not just living but loving the dream. As he put it himself in a interview late last year: “My only motivation is wake up every day happy. My first thought is having fun. I consider that a good way to reach my objectives — winning titles with my team.”

The ITV documentary didn’t bother to stick a question mark on the end of its title since no-one in their right mind could argue that there is a better footballer on the planet than Messi right now. But the best ever? It’s a debate which has transfixed the football world since his latest five-star performance and one which is sure to run and run.

My personal pantheon has remained unchanged for about six years, an all-time top five which, more or less in this order, would read: Pele, Best, Maradona, Zidane and Cruyff. None of us likes to relegate our heroes but I have to say that the position of the flying Dutchman, an elegant assassin of a goalscorer and playmaker, is now very much under threat. Which is not without irony since it was Cruyff who laid the groundwork for La Masia, the famed Barcelona youth academy which has given us Messi, Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, and the rest.

The big test for Messi, of course, is whether he can yet do for his country what he has already done for his club. You don’t have to turn it on at a World Cup to confirm your greatness — after all, George Best, sadly, never even got the chance — but it helps. That’s why Maradona’s performance in inspiring a less-than-brilliant Argentine side to the ultimate victory in 1986 counts so much in his favour for staking a legitimate claim to being greatest of them all.

It hasn’t happened yet for Messi on the highest international stage but, if he can do for his country in Brazil in 2014 what Maradona did for Argentina all of 28 years before, well, then even a certain Edson Arantes Do Nascimento will be looking over his shoulder.

Meantime, perhaps it’s best not to get too hung up on lists and simply follow Zinedine Zidane’s advice. Asked in that ITV documentary about Messi’s place in the pantheon, the Frenchman simply suggested that we “enjoy the spectacle”.


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