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Will Tidey - Lionel Messi unlocks the door to greatness

Published: 28 Apr 2011 - 08:54:16

Despite his undisputed genius, there was still a question mark over Lionel Messi's pedigree for greatness ahead of last night's Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid.

Messi might be a twice world footballer of the year, and still only 23 years old, but was his mesmeric talent applying itself when it really mattered?

The little maestro had scored a record 50 times for Barcelona this season before he stepped on the field, but not once in six previous matches at this stage of Europe's biggest club competition (although he had bagged one in a final).

It was that stat, contrasted with Cristiano Ronaldo's three goals in Champions League semi-finals, that revisited the notion that Messi isn't a big game player - and had us thinking it would be the precocious Portuguese, and not the artisan Argentine, to make an iconic contribution at the Bernabeu.

If you wanted further convincing, there was also the fact Messi had never scored in open play against a team managed by Jose Mourinho. In 10 attempts, going back to The Special One's reign at Chelsea, Messi had managed just a solitary penalty in their recent La Liga meeting. Was that enough to suggest his talent is too easily managed. Could Messi by muted?

The final item of evidence was Messi's performance at the 2010 World Cup. We expected a maverick display of Diego Maradona-esque brilliance from the then 22-year-old in South Africa , and we were roundly disappointed when he didn't deliver. He wasn't Wayne Rooney bad, but he wasn't himself either.

"How can we dub Messi a true great if he can't perform on the biggest stage," came the media chorus. Maybe we'd forgotten Maradona was nearly three years older than Messi when he performed his miracles at the 1986 World Cup? Maybe we were just being our typical cynical selves?

Or maybe we were just holding something back, knowing full well Messi would elevate to greatness sooner rather than later - and that this simply wasn't his time.

His time came just before 9.30pm last night. Messi picked up the ball, breezed past Lassana Diarra, Raul Albiol and Marcelo, and dispatched a neat finish past Iker Casillas, to score his second goal in a 2-0 win against Barcelona's greatest rivals - in the biggest match of the season, anywhere on the planet.

It was a goal of breathtaking brilliance, made to look breathtakingly easy. Think Maradona, George Best and Pele. Think greatness.

Mourinho set out to stop Messi last night, but not even the master of nullification could snub him out this time. Without Messi, Barca would have come away with a 0-0 draw and the tie been wide open. With him, they're as good as in the final.

And with that the little Argentine, who as a boy they feared would never be big enough to play professional football, took the biggest step of his already epic career. He stepped into greatness.

DSG


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:Will Tidey
Will Tidey writes on sport for CNN, Eurosport-Yahoo! and Bleacher Report, amongst others. His first book, 'Life with Sir Alex', an account of Sir Alex Ferguson's 25-year reign at Manchester United, is set for release in October this year. Pre-order it now at http://tinyurl.com/6xzl62b. And follow Will on Twitter here - www.twitter.com/willtidey

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