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Attack of the atomic flea

After he destroyed Arsenal with a four-goal salvo in the Champions League, the world's best footballer reverted to type and scurried shyly from the scene to escape the welter of eulogies which rained down in his wake.

sports Updated: May 27, 2010 00:18 IST
AFP/AP

After he destroyed Arsenal with a four-goal salvo in the Champions League, the world's best footballer reverted to type and scurried shyly from the scene to escape the welter of eulogies which rained down in his wake.

Lionel Messi had, not for the first time at club level, delivered.

If the diminutive genius they call the "atomic flea" had spiked the Gunners with a full catalogue of mazy runs and dribbles and rapier accuracy, he also knows how to use his head — as Manchester United can testify after the Argentine nodded the clincher in the 2009 Champions League final.

He may be too self-effacing to wish to do so, but, at club level Messi has nothing to fear should he ever be required to respond to the challenge "show us your medals".

His personal trophy cabinet is creaking from the last 12 months alone — despite the failuire to retain the Champions League — and former Barca coach Johan Cruyff says such graceful talent cannot be taught but is innate.

"Why is he the best player in the world? Because he has the ability to do difficult things without suffering, without getting in a flap.

What's great about Messi is he does very simple things. Or that he does what appears to us to be difficult simply and coolly," said the Dutch master.

But for the country, he has yet to flourish. Messi, however, doesn't feel any pressure to deliver for Argentina in SA, with the World Player of the Year saying he won't change his Barca playing style to suit his country.

Four years on from watching Argentina lose to Germany in the quarterfinals, Messi is a very different player from the 18-year-old who watched from the bench in Berlin that June afternoon. This time around, Messi heads to the tournament in South Africa having won a string of personal honours and titles with Barcelona, largely due to his extraordinary playmaking and scoring prowess.

"I don't feel the pressure," Messi said. "The truth is I'm arriving in good shape. I have a strong desire to do as well as I can, as do my teammates. We want to give our best for Argentina and we hope things turn out well." Coach Diego Maradona has yet to capture Messi’s best, with the forward's performances for Barcelona seemingly on a different plane to his international displays.

"I won’t change. I’ll keep playing in the same way," Messi said. "I hope to be able to do what I do (in Barcelona) in the national team without my form suffering, because that (way of playing) is what has made me able to achieve everything I have (up until now)."

Messi looks best employed on the right side of Barcelona's habitual three-pronged attack, although he has also had a prolific season as a central striker for Pep Guardiola's team. Up until now, Maradona has opted to select Messi in a free role behind the two strikers, but the Argentina coach has an array of attacking talent in Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero at his disposal.

"I don't know. It's Diego's decision," said Messi. "But I think Argentina is fortunate to have many top-quality forwards. That has been proven in this last year because if you look at all the important leagues, there is an Argentine there at the top.

"We are approaching the World Cup on a very good form and that's great news." Bizarrely, Messi has been forced to endure criticism in Argentina following some off-colour performances for his national side. "The criticism on how I play doesn't hurt," the Rosario native said. "If it's because of my performances then I'm the first to criticize myself and the first to know that I haven't done things well enough — it's not a problem. But what hurts is when people talk about things unrelated to football." Such criticism has seen Messi accused of being concerned solely with money or not being interested in playing for his national side.

"Let's hope we can do things well and that we can become champions with Argentina and lift the cup," he said.

"There is no doubt that winning a World Cup would be something unforgettable for the country, for me... I have also won everything individually and now I would like to do the same with Argentina."

Messi calls playing for icon Maradona "very special," but he is quick to dismiss the comparisons . But Maradona's greatness will long remain and the Argentina coach has said he hopes Messi can outshine him this summer. "That's impossible," Messi said.