PARIS (AP) — The word from a rehabilitation center in the south of France is that Arsenal's injured central defender William Gallas is on the mend. The bad news is that even if Arsenal could field 11 players as solid defensively as Gallas, it probably still wouldn't be enough to dim the brilliance of Lionel Messi.
For once, with Messi, comparisons to the great Diego Maradona are bang on the mark. Messi's boss at Barcelona, club president Joan Laporta, is getting ahead of himself when he says Messi is the best footballer ever. Messi's not, not yet anyway, but he could be. Winning the World Cup for Argentina this July in South Africa would put Messi up there with Maradona or Pele.
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola isn't the only one running out of superlatives to describe the small Argentine striker who is quickly becoming a giant of the game. To think that he is still only 22. How lucky we are to have a whole decade more of Messi to look forward to.
The best thing about the already legendary — here's that struggle for superlatives again — mesmerizing? otherworldly? goal that Messi scored against Zaragoza at the weekend is that he created it by himself. An attacker who scores is, by definition, good. But an attacker who tracks back, defends and scraps like a schoolboy for midfield balls like Messi does is better.
He was just inside Zaragoza's half when he dispossessed young midfielder Ander Herrera, who tumbled, stunned, to the turf. Messi, sprinting, then skipped over a scything tackle by midfield veteran Jiri Jarosik and, with the slippery grace of a shoal of fish, cut right then left to make a fool of Matteo Contini. The Italian defender literally turned full circle on himself in his doomed effort to keep up. Without even looking up, Messi then left-footed past goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez.
It was performance art, a hands-on-head-in-disbelief display of outrageous talent. Hit the rewind button, watch repeatedly without moderation.
Messi, suicidally left unmarked by Zaragoza, also scored with a header and got his third with a shot that arched like a rainbow past the right-hand post.
Be afraid, Arsenal, very afraid.
Arsene Wenger's young team is finally growing up. His hugely talented players are showing real resilience and more of the maturity that Wenger has long said was needed to transform them into championship winners. Losing striker Robin van Persie to torn ankle ligaments from November did not prove to be the season-killer that many expected. That Arsenal is the Premier League's top scoring team shows how much better it has become at overcoming adversity. Arsenal needs to win its final seven games — it won the last six — to give Wenger a real chance of lifting the Premier League trophy for the first time since his unbeaten 'Invincibles' did so in 2004.
But Messi and Barcelona are a class apart. How Wenger must wish that he could have Gallas back to keep the defending Champions League holders at bay next week.
The France international is being treated by French sports doctor Michel Gaillaud for the calf muscle injury that has kept him out since Arsenal beat Liverpool 1-0 in the Premier League on Feb. 10.
Gaillaud cautions that such injuries are complex to deal with. But he says Gallas started running again last week, could start kicking a ball again this week and is recovering so well that he might even be ready for the quarterfinal first-leg against Barcelona at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium next Wednesday. Gallas should return to London by the end of the week.
"Things are going very well," Gaillaud said by telephone. "The progress is very good."
Arsenal, however, strongly doubts that Gallas will be fit, and Wenger is pretty much ruling him out for the first leg. That means Sol Campbell likely will be called upon again to fill in.
It could get ugly. Campbell is 35. He was one of Wenger's original 2004 Invincibles. But Messi's speed and dribbling skills could make Campbell and the rest of Arsenal's likely backline of Thomas Vermaelen, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Eboue or Bacary Sagna look very mortal.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.