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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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By ESPN Staff

FC Barcelona's Messi wins World Player of the Year

ZURICH -- Lionel Messi added FIFA's World Player of the Year award to his growing list of accolades Monday, completing a nearly perfect campaign in which his club won an unprecedented trio of Spanish and European titles.

Messi received the award at a gala ceremony in Zurich, easily outdistancing the last two winners -- Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka -- along with his Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in voting among national team captains and coaches.

Messi also received the Ballon D'Or as the best player in Europe after FC Barcelona won the Spanish league and cup and the Champions League. He sealed the team's first Club World Cup on Saturday with an extra-time goal to beat Estudiantes 2-1.

All that's missing from the 22-year-old Argentine's resume is a World Cup title.

"It is beautiful to achieve a year that cannot possibly be improved," Messi said through a translator, calling the FIFA award "the icing on the cake."

Messi, who was runner-up the last two years, received 1,047 points in voting. Ronaldo was second with 352 points, followed by Xavi with 196 points.

The women's award went to Marta for the fourth year in a row. The 23-year-old Brazilian playmaker won out over teammate Cristiane, Kelly Smith of England, and German stars Birgit Prinz and Inka Grings.

"I'm really surprised," Marta said.

Nobody was surprised that Messi won the award, after scoring 38 goals in 51 matches in all competitions during 2008-09 season. He has 15 goals in 22 games already as Barcelona has surged to the top of La Liga and back to the Champions League knockout phase.

His form with Argentina has been less spectacular.

The South American team stumbled into the World Cup after late winners in the final qualifying matches against Peru and Uruguay, with Messi in particular appearing confused and uninspired since Diego Maradona took over as coach last year.

Maradona has labeled Messi his "successor" on the field, and Messi has already surpassed the former great in terms of successes at the club level. But his only international triumph was an Olympic gold medal in 2006, and he will have to play better to lead Argentina to a third World Cup and its first since Maradona inspired victory in 1986.

Asked about his play with Argentina, Messi said he didn't know why he's been unable to recapture his club form with his country.

"Argentina had a hard time in the qualifying round," he said, "but the World Cup is something different. I just hope the team and I can play better."

The late England player and manager Bobby Robson received FIFA's fair play award, while the presidential award for contributions to soccer and society went to Jordan's Queen Rania.

The world governing body also announced its first World XI men's team, which included six players from the Spanish league and five from the Premier League.

Real Madrid's Iker Casillas was goalkeeper, with Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra joining Chelsea's John Terry and Barcelona's Dani Alves on defense. Xavi, Iniesta and Liverpool's Steven Gerrard were picked as midfielders, with Messi, Ronaldo and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres in attack.

The short list of candidates for Player of the Year highlighted the shift in soccer power over the past year to Spain, whose national side is the reigning European champion and whose club sides Barcelona and Real Madrid shared all five finalists for the award.

Ronaldo was the runaway winner in 2008 after a season during which he scored 42 goals and won the European championship with Manchester United. The English side was beaten in this year's final by Barcelona, and the 24-year-old Portuguese winger moved to Real Madrid in the offseason to join Kaka, the 2007 winner of the FIFA award who transferred from AC Milan.

Ronaldo was honored at the gala for scoring the best goal of the year, a 40-yard shot against Porto in last season's Champions League. Ronaldo hailed Messi for having played "very well" but credited his rival's success to Barcelona's fluid play among teammates.

"Xavi and Iniesta also deserve the award," Ronaldo said. "If I had to choose, I would say all three of them."

Xavi and Iniesta have formed the backbone of the world's best midfield, their silky passing, penetrating runs and sublime distribution of the ball perfectly complimenting Barcelona's three-pronged attack of Messi, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It is a combination that has also been at the heart of Spain's rise to No. 1 in the world, and has the potential to lead Spain to its first World Cup title in South Africa.

"We have great hopes," Xavi said. "Let's see if this is the moment for Spain."

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