By inspiring his Barcelona team to victory over Manchester United last night, Lionel Messi now deserves his place on the pedestal alongside Maradona. It should be recognised that The Champions League is now superior to The World Cup and that Barcelona would, in all probability, have lost both of their recent finals to Manchester United without Messi. Even with the brilliance of Xavi and Busquets at the base of the attacks, Barcelona without Messi would be a sword without a tip. He scored and created another last night, his ball carrying and ability to retain possession in the tightest of spaces frustrated Manchester United and drew the sting out of their early charge. As Guillem Balague pointed out, this Manchester United team are one of the three best teams in the world, yet this Barcelona team are one of the best five ever, and it wouldn’t be so without Messi.
Comparisons are odious, we know, but in the case of Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona they’ve become unavoidable. That’s not because they’ve scored replica goals with hands and feet but because Messi is producing the same consistently murderous brilliance that his compatriot achieved in his heyday, the kind of sustained magnificence no other player in the period between Maradona’s decline and Messi’s emergence has been able to produce.
In terms of ability and his gift for performing when the occasion demands, Messi has already earned the right to be considered Maradona’s equal, regardless of whether he goes on to win the World Cup with Argentina or not. It’s not about the achievements, the accolades or the adulation, and it’s not about the coke, the Camorra or the controversies. What really merits comparison is the technique of the two greatest players the world has seen since Pele was in his pomp, two players with two special left feet and gifts so rare that sometimes their team-mates can’t read their intentions, let alone their opponents.
The signature skill of both players is their dribbling, though some would argue, not without good reason, that Messi has it easier in this respect. Maradona rarely enjoyed use of the exquisitely manicured lawns available to today’s players, and was given far less protection from referees as well. That said, Messi learned his trade on the potreros of Argentina, patches of rough ground where only the chosen few exert true mastery of the ball and where he honed the skills that drove Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea to distraction on a Stamford Bridge mudflat in 2006, a performance that remains one of his finest in a Barcelona shirt.
Like Maradona, especially at his peak, Messi operates with a ruthlessness and cold detachment, continuing to function when others around are losing their heads.
While Messi possesses the same sinuous gift for spinning off markers and changing direction with devastating and unannounced speed, and the same acceleration on the ball, if anything his busier, more frenetic dribbling style is less easier on the eye than Maradona’s. Even after being knocked to the ground on a rain-sodden pitch and with the tackles flying in, El Diez could sometimes float over the turf, his suppleness and athleticism making his opponents look brutish, ungainly.
It’s also been said that Maradona was a less selfish dribbler. “Messi sometimes plays just for Messi,” he once complained. And while the Camp Nou agreed with him for a while, booing Messi, there is one important mitigating factor: Messi invariably operates closer to the box than Maradona did, making the shot on goal a better option than offloading to a team-mate, especially with the finishing skills he possesses.
Where Maradona has the edge, if it is one, was in his greater expressiveness, often kicking his mazy runs off with a trademark push into space and throwing in more sombreros, rabonas and ruletas into his slalom routines than his successor. That’s partly down to his pedigree as a teenage half-time entertainer at Argentinos Juniors’ matches, not to mention the pride and defiance that drove him to show off his skills. But it’s also down to Messi’s more functional role as a member of Barcelona’s coolly efficient footballing machine, one that for all its beguiling aesthetics puts the emphasis on results before beauty. Messi could throw in all the flicks and tricks if he wanted to, but you get the impression Guardiola would soon tell him where to put them.
Then there’s the vision thing, which is something even us armchair viewers have, yelling at players to get the ball out wide or slide a pass between full-back and centre-half to an unmarked forward. It’s the execution that’s the hard part, though, especially when you’ve been thrown off balance by a lunging centre-half at the end of a stamina-sapping dribble. And that’s where touch comes in, the ability to get just enough on the ball, even when you’re falling to the ground, and give your unmarked team-mate the time and space they need. Even in his decline Maradona never lost it, as he showed when teeing up Claudio Caniggia for this heartbreaker of a goal at Italy 1990.
The ball was always Maradona’s friend, his passport out of poverty, and he nurtured his love for it by training with his laces undone. Messi treats it with similar respect, keeping it close to his feet or placing it with care, whether it’s in the path of a waiting colleague or inside the post of a beaten goalkeeper.
When it comes to passing, Messi can match up to his erstwhile coach, as he’s proved since coming off the right wing and shifting into a more central role with Barcelona, a switch that’s allowed him to show the full range of his distributional powers, exemplified here and here in last year’s 5-0 demolition of Real Madrid. And for all his supposed selfishness, Messi can point to his 18 league assists so far this season and the fact that like Maradona before him, he knows that when there really is nothing else on a simple pass will suffice.
Like Maradona, Messi absorbs punishment and keeps coming back for more, driving at defenders with unflinching courage, using his powerful thighs and shoulders to shrug off bullying opponents. Like Maradona, Messi conceals his intentions until the very last second, the mark of all great players. And like Maradona, especially at his peak, Messi operates with a ruthlessness and cold detachment, continuing to function when others around are losing their heads, never better illustrated than in scoring Barcelona’s second amid the mayhem at the Bernabeu in the El Clasico marathon..
Cold detachment? Maradona? Well, when you consider the fact that at Mexico 1986 his tender, swollen ankle was repeatedly targeted by South Koreans, Uruguayans and Bulgarians, among others, and that he never retaliated once, as he refused to do when subjected to this masterclass in the dark arts of defending four years earlier, then it only makes his achievements greater.
In overcoming the hackers and nigglers, acute physical pain and lax refereeing, Maradona conquered the world and the hostile environment of late 80s Serie A. His legend has since been inflated to proportions the quieter, more introspective Messi will never match, even he does eventually lead Argentina back to the pinnacle. In those terms, there is no comparison. But when you cut through the bullsh*t, put the stats to one side and focus on the technique and the brilliance, can anyone say Messi should not now be ranked alongside Maradona?
Dribbling: Messi 9 Maradona 10
Touch: Messi 9 Maradona 9
Passing: Messi 9 Maradona 10
Speed: Messi 10 Maradona 9
Power: Messi 9 Maradona 9
Finishing: Messi 10 Maradona 9
Messi: 56 Maradona 56