The best ever: Messi or Maradona?

Guardiola feels his five-goal striker compares with greatest players in game's history... but is he even the finest Argentine?

The case for Messi, by Pete Jenson

Whether we like it or not club football has now left international football behind and, as a result, the Champions League is at least as important as the World Cup. That is why Leo Messi's domination of the European Cup is every bit as significant as the mark Diego Maradona left on Mexico 86.

Think about the image of that soaring header in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, with Rio Ferdinand and an aghast Edwin van der Sar looking on. A moment preceded by the talk of him not being great in the air, and followed immediately by his boot falling off as – so the scientists tell us – his body shrunk for a split second as the super-human effort shot through his 5ft 7in frame.

Think about the same scenario two years later at Wembley as he lashed in Barcelona's second goal against Manchester United, putting his foot through the ball from the edge of the area and then racing across to do the same to the corner flag in uncharacteristic wild celebration.

Messi owns the Champions League, at the age of just 24.

That goal in last year's final was his 12th in last season's competition. This season he has 12 before the quarter-final stage. Injuries allowing, he will finish his career having won the Champions League, and scored in it, more often than any other player.

The World Cup question will have to wait until Brazil 2014 but, in the meantime, two myths about Messi, Maradona and World Cup finals needs debunking: one is that Messi did nothing in 2010 and the other is that Maradona won Mexico 86 on his own.

Brilliant individual efforts from Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga beat West Germany, albeit with the latter strike coming from a Maradona pass. Diego was for the most part nullified by Lothar Matthäus in the Azteca Stadium and without his team-mates he would not have lifted the trophy.

In 21 World Cup games, Maradona scored eight goals and he was 26 when he lifted the trophy – Messi will be 27 in Brazil in two years' time. In South Africa, Messi was unfortunate. On the pitch he hit the post more times than any other player and off it he had Maradona running the team – the great man's coaching shortcomings laid bare by Germany and that 4-0 defeat. Yet his overall performances were as good as Maradona's at the same age in Spain in 1982.

Maradona led his country in Mexico 86 but Messi leads his club every season in the Champions League. He may not puff his chest out Diego-style as he walks out on to the pitch but he is the quiet leader who always delivers.

Pep Guardiola says of Barcelona's No 10: "There are different types of leadership. When things get difficult, Messi steps up. He has done it right throughout the last four years. It is a silent leadership; in adversity he always comes forward."

Last season in the Champions League when Jose Mourinho's plan to smother Barcelona seemed to be working in the first home leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, it was Messi's brace that in the space of a few minutes put the tie beyond Real Madrid. His four goals against Arsenal two seasons ago led Arsène Wenger to label him the "playstation player", and having led his team to the final he always delivers in those final 90 minutes that decide who lifts the trophy.

He also chested the ball into the back of the net – scoring with the Barcelona badge as Barça supporters like to remember it – in the World Club championship in 2009 against Estudiantes, when the team won the tournament for the first time ever. Another big final, another match-deciding goal.

Separating them as players is difficult. It is true Maradona made Napoli champions and thrived in an era when flair players were largely unprotected. But Messi moving to a different country, aged 13, was a character test which Maradona never had to pass. And as the defenders bouncing off him every week prove, Messi hardly needs the match official protection he and all players now receive.

On his first day at Barcelona, remembers team-mate Marcos Alonso, Maradona kicked his rolled-up socks-off the bench in the dressing room and did 300 keepy-ups. The only Messi first- day anecdotes are of a shy boy in awe of his surroundings. Messi has never had that brash showmanship, but once he crosses the line and the whistle blows he matches the man he now looks like replacing as the greatest of all time.

If he holds the World Cup aloft in Rio, there really will be no debate but even without international glory his domination of the greatest club competition in the world, at a time when club football is so much in the ascendancy, has him as Guardiola says – sat on the throne, crowned football's greatest.

The case for Maradona, by Glenn Moore

One day, maybe, Lionel Messi will prove the global game's greatest player, but not yet, and certainly not just because he put five goals past a Bayer Leverkusen defence which had already been taken apart this season by Bundesliga relegation-strugglers Augsburg and Cologne.

Messi may be scoring goals at a rate rarely seen since Dixie Dean's heyday, but he does have the advantage of being at the sharp end of probably the greatest team of all time. Take Messi out of Barcelona and what do you have?

We already have an answer. In the last World Cup Messi failed to score in five matches as Argentina lost in the quarter-final to Germany. It is argued that the Champions League is now a higher standard than the World Cup (not that the presence of Apoel Nicosia in the quarter-finals adds much weight to that view).

Whether it is or not is irrelevant when judging Messi because he is playing for the best team in the competition, a team which even without him would be formidable. A truly great player is capable of turning a moderate team into a winning one. Like Diego Maradona.

English attitudes towards Maradona are understandably coloured by the "Hand of God" goal but his notoriety should not obscure his greatness. Maradona turned base materials into gold on both the club and international stage. Napoli were a shambles when they somehow found the cash to buy him in 1984. Fighting relegation had become a way of life with the club surviving by a point the previous season. Maradona turned them into title contenders and in 1986/87 they won the first scudetto in the club's history. A second Serie A title, and Napoli's first European prize, the Uefa Cup, followed. Since Maradona left, the club have not won a trophy.

Maradona was similarly central to Argentina's 1986 World Cup success. Ten of their 14 goals were scored or created by him, and his five goals included superb ones against England and Belgium of the type now associated with Messi. In the final, after West Germany had come back from 2-0 down to level, he supplied the pass for Jorge Burruchaga to score the winner. All this while carrying a knee injury which had threatened to rule him out of the tournament.

Brian Glanville, in The Story of the World Cup, his history of the competition since 1930, wrote: "It will always be remembered as Maradona's World Cup, seldom has a player, even Pele, so dominated the competition. In an era when individual talent was at a premium, defensive football more prevalent than ever, Maradona – squat, muscular, explosive, endlessly adroit – showed that a footballer of genius could still prevail."

This context is another factor in Maradona's primacy. He formerly played in an era when the tactics were negative and the tackling brutal. Maradona's relative lack of impact at Barcelona, and later decline, had much to do with the injuries he suffered including the notorious ankle-break by Andoni Goikoetxea, the "Butcher of Bilbao". Only after the 1990 World Cup, when Maradona carried to the final an Argentine team which was as guilty of these sins as any, did Fifa begin the crackdown which has allowed players like Messi to flourish.

While Maradona was by some distance the most notable player in the 1986 squad, Messi, in 2010, had the likes of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and Juan Sebastian Veron for company. Yet still he was unable to inspire them, even to the last four. Messi was only 23, but Pele had been part of two World Cup-winning squads at that age, and had scored twice in the 1958 final at 17.

In Europe much of the blame for failure in 2010 was heaped on the fact that Maradona was manager, but in Argentina Messi has borne the brunt of criticism for the albiceleste's struggles. Playing in the Copa America last summer in his home province of Santa Fe, Messi was called "mercenary, Catalonian" (his nickname in Argentina where he is perceived as being more interested in club than his country), before being taunted with chants of "Maradona, Maradona". Maradona was no longer coach but hosts Argentina were still knocked out in the quarter-finals after one win in four matches.

There is, though, hope on the horizon. Under new coach Alex Sabella, Messi scored a hat-trick against Switzerland last month. Should this promise end in triumph in the 2014 World Cup, in Brazil, with Messi playing a prominent part, he will have earned the right to stand alongside Pele and Maradona in the game's pantheon.

Shoot-out: Stars in numbers

Messi/Maradona

Age at club debut

17y 4m/15y 11m

Age at Argentina debut

18y 2m/16y 4m

Club games

311/589

Club goals

228/311

Club goals per game ave

0.73/0.53

Argentina caps

67/91

Argentina goals

22/34

Argentina gls per game ave

0.33/0.37

World Cups played (won)

2 (0)/4 (1)

European Cups won

3/0

League titles won

5/3

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