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Mar 16, 2010

Messi feels the pressure of being world's best

The bandwagon calling for Wayne Rooney to be hailed as the best footballer in the world was derailed somewhat as Lionel Messi reminded everyone how genius should be gauged with his stunning hat-trick against Valencia on Sunday evening.

Rooney's scoring feats for Manchester United mean he is more than worthy of the praise flowing in his direction, yet the magic Messi has been blessed with still puts this Argentine maestro a step ahead of those nipping at his feet and hoping to join him on the game's highest plinth.

Class and humility combine to provide an unusually appealing concoction when Messi comes under the spotlight as while it would have been easy for this little master to allow the fulfilment of all his dreams at the age of 21 to go to his head last summer, he never seems to lose the balance that singles him out as something so very special.

Genius has generally bestowed upon a chose few whose deep flaws tend to undermine their gift down the years, yet Messi seems to buck that trend as he is always willing to offer praise to a rival with good grace.

So when the question of Rooney's rising stock is thrown his way, Messi offers an enthusiastic response that is bound to bring a smile to the rugged face of the England hero.

"Manchester United have a player who can now be considered as world class as Rooney has been fantastic this season," says the Argentina superstar. "He has become the striker who can do it all. He leads the line, he moves wide, comes deep, his heading ability seems to have improved so much and he is so strong when he plays with his back to goal. Rooney's energy is amazing also and I give him all the credit for becoming a world class player."

Rooney may be a newcomer to football's most prestigious top table, but Messi has been dining alongside the elite for some time now, with Barcelona's stunning treble success last season leaving few in any doubt that the Catalan side's inspiration-in-chief had become the best player on the planet.

The personal accolade to confirm as much duly followed as Messi was crowned FIFA's World Player of the Year ahead of long-term rival Cristiano Ronaldo, though he admits his insecurities came to the fore as he came to terms with his new title.

"There is a lot of responsibility that go with these individual awards and sometimes it's not so easy to deal with the expectations," says Messi, who has been forced to deal with the odd barb of criticism this season. "What you have to understand is today's truth is not always that of tomorrow and everyone needs to keep some perspective. Criticism is just an opinion and so is praise.

"I have to live up to my reputation and the best way to do it is to stay humble and always look to improve. I've been called greedy at times and I do love to dribble, but my first instinct is to think of the team. I never put myself first and my team-mates will confirm this. As a boy, my dream was to play with the ball, run with the ball, and score the perfect goal. You see goals on television that are close to perfect, but there is always another level of perfect and that is what we all want to find."

Messi's version of perfection is likely to be on a whole different level to that being chased by his rivals. Modern days sporting giants such as tennis icon Roger Federer or golfing great Tiger Woods may just have touched such an incalculable flawless idyll at points during their careers, but you get the feeling this footballer is capable of even more.

Still a novice in so many ways, it is a chilling thought for the rest that Messi may be due to reach his prime in time for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, but there is so much for this diminutive box of tricks to squeeze in between now and then.

First off is Barca's pursuit of another domestic and European trophy haul, though defeat to Sevilla in the King's Cup makes a clean sweep impossible this term. With the shock waves of Real Madrid's Champions League exit last week still rippling through Spanish football, Messi suggests his colleagues would be wise to treat Stuttgart with respect ahead of the second leg of the last 16 tie that is delicately poised at 1-1 after a tight first leg in Germany.

"Nothing can be taken for granted," he continues. "Everyone thought we would comfortably win in Stuttgart but we had to settle for a draw and it makes the second leg not so certain, but this kind of situation was to be expected after what we achieved in 2009.

"Repeating the success we had at Barcelona last season was always going to be difficult. Dominating time and again is not something you see in sport so often because opponents come at you even harder. The margin for error is smaller as the opponents grow in ambition and ability you are the one they all want to beat, but this Barcelona team are confident of defending our titles.

"Once again, I expect the big challenge to come from England in the Champions League. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are potential finalists and all of them are capable of winning the title as they have great players and great unity in their teams.

"Chelsea have power, discipline and desire and they caused us so many problems in the semi-final last year. Then I see United as a threat because of the lightning-fast way they change tempo and they now have a striker who cannot stop making an impression in Rooney. Finally, Arsenal are a team to consider because of their fantastic build-up play. They are like us at Barca in so many ways. Rather than being from London, they should be from South America. Andrei Arshavin and Cesc Fabregas are touch-players I love to watch.

"The great thing about this game is that every season offers something different and nothing is as obvious as it seems. This is why you can never be satisfied in football."

Footballers always claim that team glory should be placed ahead of personal acclaim, but both can go hand in hand for the two finest players performing in European football right now. There may already be only two players in the running for this year's World Player of the Year prize, with the battle between Messi and Rooney certain to be compelling box office viewing in the weeks ahead.

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