PROFILE - Messi makes his mark, quietly but effectively
MADRID (Reuters) - The transfer of the title of European Player of the Year effectively took place in the Champions League final last May when Lionel Messi eclipsed the 2008 winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Argentina forward scored Barcelona's second goal, with a rare header, putting the seal on a convincing 2-0 victory over Manchester United, and confirmed his place as the tournament's top scorer with nine goals.
His coach Pep Guardiola, having completed an unprecedented treble of La Liga, King's Cup and Champions League titles, said after the final in Rome: "I think he is the best player and we didn't need to win today to know he is the best."
Off the field, the comparison between Ronaldo and Messi could not be more different. Messi is no strutting superstar with film star looks.
Until he cut his hair last year he resembled a disaffected teenager shuffling about with hunched shoulders, lank locks and a mumbling delivery.
But on the pitch they share many qualities, both tagged as wingers with electric pace and an eye for goal.
Messi usually plays on the right flank even though he is left-footed, and his scampering runs off the wing and cutting across the area to shoot or play-in a team mate, have become a trademark of Barcelona's eye-catching attacking style.
Critics who said Messi was selfish and did not link up well with his team mates were silenced once and for all last year.
The arrival of dynamic right back Daniel Alves at Barcelona freed up Messi from his wing duties, allowing him to move deeper into midfield.
He was able to lose his markers, link up better with Barca's orchestrators Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and burst through the centre on to goal as well.
On top of the nine he scored in Europe, he bagged six in the King's Cup including one in the 4-1 final victory over Athletic Bilbao, and 23 in the league, to finish as Barca's top scorer with a total of 38.
Messi, whose style is usually likened to that of his compatriot and national team manager Diego Maradona, is a product of the Barca youth system and debuted under Frank Rijkaard aged only 16.
He is still only 22 but has amassed three La Liga titles, two European Cups and a King's Cup at club level, and while he has suffered criticism of late for failing to produce his club form with Argentina, he has won awards on the international stage as well.
He helped Argentina win the Under-20 World Cup in 2005, finishing as top scorer in the tournament, and won gold with the national team at the Beijing Olympics last year.
The FIFA World Player of the Year award could soon be sitting on his trophy-laden mantelpiece as well.
(Writing by Mark Elkington, editing by Alison Wildey)-
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