x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Barcelona is the best and Messi is the difference

With it almost assured that Lionel Messi will win his third consecutive Fifa world player of the year award, Pep Guardiola, his manager at Barcelona, says the Argentine is the key to their success.

Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager, considers Lionel Messi as key to the team's success.
Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona manager, considers Lionel Messi as key to the team's success.

After helping to orchestrate Barcelona's demolition of Manchester United in the Champions League final, there seems to be no limit to what Lionel Messi can achieve.

A third straight Fifa world player of the year award is surely heading the Argentine's way after his staggering, 53-goal season. He is still just 23 years old and could have another decade at the top. Messi's return of one goal and an assist in Saturday's 3-1 win hardly reflected his impact at Wembley. The diminutive No 10 outwitted opponents to find and create space throughout the game, making a defence that reached the final without conceding an away goal look second-rate. Even in a team of World Cup winners and European champions, Messi stood out.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, called Barcelona the best team he had come up against in almost four decades of coaching, and Barcelona's Pep Guardiola cited Messi as the key man.

"We have good players in the team, but he makes the difference," Guardiola said. "We can compete but without him we would not have that qualitative leap that we do have with him.

"We have hard work, we have talent; we've used tactics and we've tried to put players at their ease. But Messi is unique."

The challenge facing Guardiola and Barcelona is to keep things that way. Football history is littered with examples of players failing to live up the their potential because of off-field distractions.

"I hope he doesn't get fed up and I hope he will continue being at his ease and being at the club with the players around him," Guardiola said. "When he doesn't play well it's because something is wrong with his environment, with his surroundings. So let's hope that everything continues to go well in his personal life and that the club is intelligent to put together the kind of team he needs to have around him."

Thankfully, the quiet and modest Messi does not look like a man about to go off the rails.

"To be the man of the match is the least important thing, because it was incredible how we played," Messi said. "We were very good in all areas."

The last player to spark comparisons with all-time greats such as Pele, Maradona and Cruyff at such a young age was Brazil's Ronaldo, who at 21 became the first player to win Fifa's world award for two straight years. However, injuries and weight problems wrecked what looked like a limitless career.

Messi, with his reliance on technique and the avoidance of contact, would appear to be less vulnerable than Ronaldo to such damaging injuries.

That can only be good for football-lovers.

"He is the No 1, he makes the difference," teammate Xavi said. "He is just the best player in the world."