LONDON, May 29 (AFP): Lionel Messi cemented his status as the greatest player of his generation as two moments of magic from the Argentine maestro inspired Barcelona to Champions League glory.
Messi arrived at Wembley yesterday widely regarded as the sport’s preeminent force but the likes of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney also had their claims to be the world’s best.
Those arguments will now be forgotten as Messi produced a second match-winning display in a Champions League final against United in the space of just three years. Back in 2009, Messi announced his arrival as a true great with a headed goal in Barca’s 2-0 victory over United in Rome.
This time he did his damage with a sweet strike to restore Barca’s lead early in second half before a superb solo run provided the impetus for David Villa’s clinching third goal.
A remarkable tally of 56 goals in 62 games for club and country this season suggests Messi deserves his place alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano and George Best in the pantheon of all-time greats.
Maradona worked with Messi when he was Argentina manager at last year’s World Cup and said recently: “I’ve heard many times over the years that there is a ‘new Maradona’. With Messi, though, I believe the player is equal to the hype.”
It was easy to see why Maradona is so enthralled by his compatriot as he bewitched the United defence time and again.
Messi was denied a sight of goal by Nemanja Vidic’s brilliantly timed tackle in the early stages.
The 23-year-old had never scored in England and he was out of luck again on the stroke of half-time when he stretched to reach Villa’s cross.
He dropped deep to link up with the midfield on several occasions and embarked on several twisting runs into the heart of United’s defence without finding the killer pass.
When a chance finally came his way with space on the edge of the penalty area early in the second half, Messi’s shot was headed away for a corner.
But United had been warned and they failed to heed the lesson in the 54th minute.
Andres Iniesta slipped a pass to the Argentine 25 yards out and, as Patrice Evra and Vidic backed off, Messi whipped a fine low strike past Edwin van der Sar.
Messi’s 12th Champions League goal of the season equalled the record set by former United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy during his time at Old Trafford.
He was close to another as he escaped Rio Ferdinand’s attentions to drive in a shot that Van der Sar pushed away, but he wasn’t finished yet.
A typically fleet-footed piece of skill left Nani trailing in his wake as Messi cut in from the right to unhinge the United defence in the build-up to Villa’s 69th minute minute goal.
Fittingly, Wembley, renowned as the Venue of Legends, was the backdrop for Messi’s rise to the ranks of the immortals.
While Messi shone, it was a frustrating night for Rooney.
The 25-year-old admitted this week that he was so enthralled by Barca’s 5-0 win over Real Madrid earlier this season that he leapt from his sofa to applaud their sublime display.
And Rooney was reduced to the role of spectator again as Barca weaved their magic to take the lead through Pedro in the 27th minute.
United’s need for Rooney to step up to the plate had never been greater and the England forward rose to the occasion to equalise in the 34th minute.
After Rio Ferdinand won possession, he took Michael Carrick’s pass in stride and flicked the ball onto Giggs, whose flick was just right for Rooney, drifting between Barca’s centre-backs, to curl a superb first-time shot past Victor Valdes.
However after that he was starved of possession for long periods and cut a frustrated figure as Barca strolled to their fourth European Cup triumph.