x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The stage is set for Messi to join elite

The Argentine's three goals in the 4-2 victory at Real Zaragoza took his total to 10 goals in four games in March alone. That is a goal every 36 minutes.

Another Barcelona game, another spectacular Lionel Messi hat-trick. The Argentine's three goals in Sunday's 4-2 victory at Real Zaragoza took his total to 10 goals in four games in March alone. That is a goal every 36 minutes. Messi has netted 33 times in all competitions so far this season, his 25 league goals putting him five clear of compatriot Gonzalo Higuain, the Real Madrid striker, who is his closest challenger ahead of David Villa (17) and Cristiano Ronaldo (15).

Only Wayne Rooney is as prolific in top level world football, with the enticing possibility of favourites Barcelona and Manchester United meeting in May's Champions League final in Madrid. Messi has praised Rooney and the English striker has often saluted the Barca man, while the Madrid press talk about Messidependencia - as if the Catalans have no other players. Real (who also won on Sunday) and Barca head the Primera Liga in an exciting duel, but it is Messi who is winning the rave reviews because he is performing in European competition as well as domestically.

He is also hitting top form at exactly the right time, because 2010 could be just as important to Messi as 2009 and the six trophies he won with Barca - those and a clutch of individual awards. Still just 22, the tiny attacker nicknamed "the flea" has won every major honour in football apart from the World Cup, a competition in which Diego Maradona, his national team coach, expects him to shine in South Africa this summer.

Maradona was in Barcelona last week to see Barca destroy Stuttgart, hiding behind a flat cap and a giant cigar before he flew to Manchester to watch several other Argentines. El Diego recently said: "Messi will be the star of the World Cup finals. No player is more important than him; Messi has every quality and we will support him as best we can. He is a phenomenon who goes eye-to-eye with any defender in the world and beats them. He is making history every year."

It is Argentina, not Barca, who are more dependent on Messi. And it is Maradona who has been unable to get the best out of the player so often compared to himself. Argentina struggled in the World Cup qualifiers, with Messi often cutting a forlorn and frustrated figure. His mother even told critics to get off her son's back, alluding to Maradona's bizarre tactics and constantly shifting plans. It is a shame because if used correctly, there is no player in the world like Messi.

Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Andres D'Alessandro and Carlos Tevez have all been labelled the new Maradona, without coming close to achieving El Diego's iconic status. Messi, however, looks the most likely to deserve the accolade, yet the comparisons make him ill at ease. "It's an honour to be compared, but Diego is Diego and I am me," he says. "I try to live my life as a normal person, to spend a lot of time with my family."

Cesar Luis Menotti, the Argentina coach when they won their first World Cup in 1978, sees Africa as Messi's stage, the probable venue for his greatest performance. "There have been four kings of football: [Alfredo] Di Stefano, Pele, [Johan] Cruyff and Maradona," he says. "Below that level Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Romario [the Brazilians] and [Zinedine] Zidane have all come close, but none of these had the same talents as Messi. We are in the presence of a possible new king of football."

The stage is being set and Messi has delivered everything asked of his immense potential so far. The world awaits, but first, Barcelona awaits. @Email:sports@thenational.ae