Gregory Sica
Tuesday June 2nd, 2009

If there were still any doubts, Lionel Messi last week proved he is the best player in the world after playing a key role in Barcelona's victory over Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final. Messi wasn't at his best that day, but he still made the difference, scoring Barça's second goal with a spectacular header.

That strike was a fitting moment for Messi, who not only finished as the highest scorer of the competition with nine goals, but as the most valuable player. Those accomplishments, coupled with his starring role in helping Barça claim the Spanish league championship and the Copa del Rey this season, make him a virtual lock to win the FIFA World Player of the Year Award for 2009.

Last year, Messi was beaten to the award by Cristiano Ronaldo, but the fact that he upstaged the Manchester United winger in the final of the Champions League this season clearly identifies him as the No. 1 player in the world right now. Messi has demonstrated such incredible talent that he is perhaps the greatest player to have emerged from Argentina since Diego Maradona.

The comparisons are definitely there, but the only way the 21-year-old can be seen in the same light as El Pibe de Oro is by lifting the World Cup, something Maradona did back in 1986. Now that he has won everything with Barcelona this year, Messi himself affirmed that his ultimate goal is guiding Argentina to World Cup glory in South Africa in 2010.

"To win the World Cup would be much greater than what I achieved with Barcelona," La Pulga told Argentine reporters this week. "The World Cup is the ultimate dream for any player, so hopefully one day I can achieve this."

However, Argentina has to get there first. And things haven't gone exactly to plan in World Cup qualifying, which resumes for South America this weekend. Fourth-place Argentina must pick up results in its upcoming games with Colombia and Ecuador, two teams it failed to beat in the first round.

In Maradona's second game in charge for Argentina in April, los Albicelestes were crushed 6-1 by Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz. It was the most humiliating defeat in Argentine history, and although many felt it was too premature to think about Argentina's chances of missing the World Cup, the two-time world champions are one of the teams with the most difficult closing schedules in the qualifying campaign.

But with Messi at the center of things, Argentina is still expected to secure one of four automatic World Cup berths designated for South American teams. Argentina features an abundance of talent, and even if Messi has an off-day, several of his teammates are capable of turning on the style.

"With the players it has, the national team is spectacular," Messi said. "It is prepared and it might be the moment for Argentina to be world champions again. There is lots of work to do, so the more we are together, the better it will be."

Having played a determining role in helping Argentina claim gold at last year's Beijing Olympics, as well as the '05 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Messi already has triumphed while wearing the national-team colors. He will be hoping to translate that success to the senior team, the one place he has yet to reach his full potential.

Although Messi has been surrounded during qualifying by loads of quality players, he has struggled to make an impact. With only four goals through 12 games, he has failed to live up to expectations, and Argentina has been affected as a result. Messi even admitted that the Argentine faithful are much more demanding than Barcelona fans, and that earning their respect takes time. Although time is sparse during qualification, Messi believes it won't be long before Argentina finds the ideal blend.

"At Barça, I have the entire year to demonstrate things, and to play good matches," he said. "There is always a chance for revenge. In the national team, you play two matches every two or three months, and the people stay with this image. It is very difficult. But bit by bit things are going to turn out how Diego wants them to."

With Juan Román Riquelme now out of the picture, Messi has been given a greater responsibility in the team, and Maradona has said there's no reason why Messi shouldn't be able to perform as well with Argentina as he does with Barcelona. If Messi captures his club form in World Cup qualifying, it stands to reason that Argentina will begin to realize its full potential heading into South Africa. Once there, Messi will have the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream.

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