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Messi calm in eye of storm

Ask Lionel Messi about comparisons with Diego Maradona and his eyes glaze over, but in one vital respect at least evidence suggests the youngster has the upper hand – temperament.

Lionel Messi is now the UEFA Champions League's top scorer
Lionel Messi is now the UEFA Champions League's top scorer ©Getty Images

With the blossoming of his talent, his natural maturing and his happiness at being in a long-term relationship, Lionel Messi has grown noticeably more at ease, more humorous and more open in his dealings with the media.

But one particular question will still make his eyes glaze, turn the atmosphere chilly and start the countdown to when the FC Barcelona striker is up and out of the door. If the interviewer is daft enough to try to lure the 22-year-old into the tiresome debate about whether he or Diego Maradona is the better footballer or the greatest in history, a verbal dribble will ensue, followed by a pair of clean heels. Defenders suffer the same fate every week.

However, there seems to be more and more evidence to suggest that in one vital respect Messi truly is Maradona's better – temperament. Yes, the prodigy has shown hints of a fire-and-brimstone temper – including a red card 90 seconds into his international debut five years ago – but he can dominate these flashes.

"Something deep in my character allows me to take the hits and get on with trying to win," Messi told UEFA.com. "I've always had this ability to get up and get on with it." If conquering his growth hormone deficiency was Messi's toughest challenge, keeping his head must also represent a constant test of will for a player fouled about once every 30 minutes in the Liga and UEFA Champions League this season – the foul count is 94 in 37 matches up to early April.

In that period, 27 yellow cards were shown to players for halting him illegally, as the unstoppable force continues to be met by immovable objects. Yet Messi possesses the self-discipline to avoid retaliation – at club level he averages a booking every ten games or so – and statistics show he commits significantly less than one foul a match.

"I worked out long ago that the fact people try to kick and foul you comes with the territory when you play the way I do," the Argentinian international said. "At the start of a match, when you are not properly warmed up, it hurts a bit more. But by the time the game is in full flow, you are concentrating so hard on winning that usually you barely notice what has happened."

Those who have followed his career since his days with Barcelona B will perceive more acutely Messi's burgeoning confidence and maturity. They will remember the forward's fit of pique after he was denied a place in Frank Rijkaard's squad for the 2006 UEFA Champions League final against Arsenal FC, when the player himself believed he had recovered sufficiently from injury. After the Blaugrana triumph, the teenager refused to celebrate with the team and the trophy on the pitch in Paris.

He is tired of the subject, yet now says: "It was a mistake. I had a rush of blood to the head, but I've learned that you must seize the moment." So when the moment next came, in last May's final against Manchester United FC, Messi did just that – not only ending his record of never having scored a competitive goal against an English side, but heading the crucial second in Rome.

Then there is the hugely increased self-assurance of a young man once so shy that Cesc Fàbregas often jokes "we thought he was mute". Revelling in Barça's Spanish title success at the Camp Nou at the end of last season, Messi used his time in front of the microphone to remind the 98,000-strong audience of the struggles suffered by injured colleague Gabriel Milito. The voice was loud and strong, the message mature.

His performance at the mic upon returning to the same arena with the UEFA Champions League trophy was a little wobblier, following a long and thirsty day on the open-topped bus around Barcelona. Television clips showed his team-mates clasping their heads in astonishment when a dancing Messi promised: "We are going to win all these trophies all over again." From another player, it might have been a mistake or a vain boast. But what we have learned with this maturing genius is that he meant it. And that he is capable of fulfilling it. That's how good he is.