MAY 26, 2009 11:27 AM

Seldom do the world’s best two players and teams face-off in the European final, and this Wednesday in Rome, Manchester United and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo come in as defending champions and world’s best player. Should Barcelona crown its brilliant season with a UEFA Champions League trophy, it will be a benchmark of the growing prominence and maturity of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, acclaimed as the best left-footer since Diego Maradona.

While United‘s Ronaldo is a cocky and flashy character, Messi, 21, is unremarkable and placid off the field but a live wire and an improvisational genius on the field. He is the leading scorer in this season’s Champions League with eight goals, and his 37 goals in all competitions lead Barcelona’s offensive juggernaut, which already won the Spanish league and Cup titles.

On the field, Messi’s skill, speed, swerve and balance make him one of the most electrifying and unpredictable dribblers. But in the interviews, which are part of a modern soccer star’s agenda, he is is predictable and bland, perhaps because making Messi deconstruct his mesmerizing moves is akin to asking an adolescent Mozart to analyze his precocious genius.

When he gets the ball on the left foot and the right flank of the Barcelona attack and cuts inside, the player known as la Pulga (the Flea) sets off all defensive alarms.

“I don’t want to put pressure on Leo, but he is a little – a lot – like Maradona,” said his teammate Thierry Henry.

Aided by his whirling legs, a long torso and low center of gravity, Messi is difficult to foul and nearly impossible to stop. Ronaldo may be better at scoring off headers and on the counterattack, but in reduced space Messi’s precision control and surgical passing can slice through defenses. “It is impossible to know what he will do,” Barcelona defender Éric Abidal said.

The final in Rome on Wednesday will generate huge television audiences and will add a new chapter to the ongoing debate about who is the better player: Ronaldo or Messi. “First of all, it’s a game between two great teams. Of course, whoever wins will help – me or Cristiano – get the individual honors. Before everything, it’s a Barca against Manchester,” Messi said.

The absences of Barca defenders Rafa Márquez, Dani Alves and Abidal, out for the match in Rome, and nagging injuries to offensive stalwarts Andrés Iniesta and Henry will force coach Pep Guardiola to shuffle the lineup. The focus turns to Messi and Xavi Hernández to continue stoking the record-setting Barca offense, which has scored 104 goals in La Liga this season and could break Real Madrid’s league record of 107. The 70 goals scored by Messi (23), Samuel Eto’o (28) and Henry (19) have surpassed the Spanish league record set by the mythical Real Madrid threesome of Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo di Stefano and Luis del Sol in 1960-61.

At a salary of more than $11 million, Messi is the best-paid player on the team. “I’m happy because it’s been a great year for the group and for me in particular,” Messi said.

The last time Barcelona won the European title, in 2006, Xavi and Messi were injured and did not play. This season, the emergence of Iniesta and Xavi as the engines in Barca’s midfield and Guardiola’s firm hand at the helm have taken some of the spotlight off Messi, who has often been described as aloof and disconnected.

“Messi is more talented, but Cristiano Ronaldo has a bigger arsenal of weapons,” ESPN Deportes analyst Eduardo Biscayart said.

Messi is also a powerful symbol of the globalization of Barcelona’s unusual youth academy, or cantera, which has produced several home-grown players, including the starters Iniesta, Xavi, goalie Victor Valdés and Gerard Piqué.

In Rosario’s Zona Sur, a, working-class neighborhood, the Messi family lived barely a mile from the Paraná River, which irrigates Argentina’s breadbasket, the region northwest of Buenos Aires known at the Pampa Gringa. It is fertile ground for soccer players, producing stars such as the prolific striker Gabriel Batistuta, and Liverpool’s midfield dynamo Javier Mascherano.

The back story of how Messi arrived in Barcelona is inspirational. Always the smallest and quickest player, a young Messi played for Newell’s Old Boys’ youth squad. In January 1997, Newell’s and his family consulted an endocrinologist, who diagnosed low levels of human growth hormone for the in the 9-year-old and predicted he would grow no taller than 4-feet-7. The cost of the medicine, which he injected into his legs every night, was prohibitive: more than $1,000 per month. His family got tired of asking Newell’s to subsidize the cost, leaving the door open for Messi, then 13, to leave the club.

His father took young Leo to tryouts at Buenos Aires club River Plate and then across the Atlantic. Barcelona had already heard of him, and when Barcelona’s Carles Rexach finally saw him play, he decided to sign him on the spot. To calm the fears of his family, Rexach sketched basic contract terms on a napkin. (The napkin anecdote is now integrated into an ad campaign for beer in Spain that features Messi.)

The Messi family moved to Catalunya, and when Messi was promoted to the Barcelona squad, he wore the No. 30, in homage to his two favorite players, Deco (No. 20) and Ronaldinho (No. 10). At age 16, he debuted in a league match on Oct. 16, 2004. As Messi matured, he gravitated to the talented Brazilians, who gave him rides to training and allowed him to sit at the Brazilian players’ table.

Since then, Messi has led Argentina to an U-20 World Cup (in 2005) and the Olympic gold medal last summer in Beijing.

There are questions whether Messi’s placid personality off the field and improvisational riffs on the pitch can inspire and carry a team the way Maradona did in the past.

Maradona said Messi needs to pass the ball a little more and, “I hope he’s better than me.” Privately, however, Maradona said that had Messi gotten more playing time with Argentina in the 2006 World Cup, it would not have been eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals.

“Messi is a rara avis,” said Paco Aguilar, a Spanish journalist for the daily Mundo Deportivo in Barcelona. “He is a whirling dervish, you never know what he’s going to do.” Aguilar is also one of the jounalists who votes for the annual Ballon d’Or prize, which goes to the best player in the world. He voted for neither Messi nor Ronaldo, he said, but chose Xavi because of his leadership role in Spain’s breakthrough national team title in last summer’s Euro 2008.

“This year, Messi is unquestionably the best of all,” Aguilar said. “There are other players that can do some of the things he does, but not at the speed he does.”

Maradona, now the coach of Argentina’s national team, does not equivocate: “Messi is the best player in the world. The amazing thing is the tight control he has over the ball, which never gets away from him.”

Like Maradona, Messi is 5-7 and left-footed. But he has a forward’s touch as he slices and swerves around defenders on his slalom runs toward the goal from the right sideline.

Feeding the conversation about the Barcelona forward being the heir to Maradona and Ronaldo is a goal against Getafe last year. Messi juked five players from midfield all the way to the goal, bearing an eerie resemblance to Maradona’s classic 1986 World Cup obstacle-course run against England.

In the Barca camp, it is apparent that Messi is being handed more of a leadership role under Guardiola. He is the last to step off the team bus, and Messi was given the coveted No. 10 shirt, symbolic of a team’s creative schemer, after Ronaldinho departed for A.C. Milan. When Barcelona last won the Champions League in 2006, Ronaldinho was the team’s star.

“I knew it was important to have that shirt for everything it means,” Messi said. “Before Ronaldinho had it, and I have inherited it.”

Despite his aversion to interviews, Messi is now raising his media profile, but during news conferences and interviews he usually speaks in platitudes. At last Thursday’s media day, Messi was the player most requested by the press. The club and Messi’s father Jorge, however, scrupulously control access. They limited exclusive interviews to two Argentine journalists.

“We had a spectacular season, and level of play and in winning trophies,” Messi told Martín Ainstein of ESPN Deportes. “The most special yet was to win the clasico against Real Madrid. We were rewarded with the league title, and let’s hope we get the Champions.”

A strong performance on Wednesday could catapult Messi into the mainstream spotlight — he was recently featured on the cover of ESPN, The Magazine. Shine Entertainment’s Dario Brignole works with the Messi clan in global marketing deals. They hope to capitalize on Messi’s wholesome image. “You give Leo a ball and he is happy,” Brignole said. “He’s not like Cristiano Ronaldo or Beckham. He will never cause problems. He’s a really good kid and totally family-oriented.”

Brignole pointed out that Messi did a Gillette advertisement with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer for the Latin American market. “We want to build a brand, like LeBron, Shaq or Federer,” Brignole said.

By contrast with Ronaldo, who before receiving last year’s Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year said he was the “first-, second- and third-best player in the world,” Messi displays a kid-in-awe attitude as he minimizes the accolades and comparisons to the Barcelona greats like Maradona and Johan Cruyff.

“They’re two greats in the history of the game,” he said. “I’m still in my early years. I hope to achieve some of the things they did.”