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Messi reveals close ties with Maradona

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Messi inspired by Maradona
  • Lionel Messi tells CNN he is determined to live up to high expectations in South Africa
  • The Barcelona star has yet to reproduce his stunning club form on international stage
  • He reveals that he has close relationship with his Argentina coach Diego Maradona
  • Messi wears the same No. 10 shirt as Maradona and hopes to emulate his World Cup success

London, England (CNN) -- Lionel Messi's form with Barcelona has been sensational again this season, scoring 34 league goals to help the club retain the Spanish title, but the burning question is whether he can reproduce that on the biggest stage.

Messi, the 2009 FIFA world player of the year, has been hailed as the natural successor to Argentina legend Diego Maradona, who is now his national coach.

He played in all 18 of Argentina's World Cup qualifiers but netted just four times as La Albiceleste struggled to reach South Africa by snatching South America's fourth and final automatic place in the last round.

Some critics have questioned whether Maradona is capable of getting the best out of Messi, but the 23-year-old told CNN's Pedro Pinto that the two have a close relationship.

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"The truth is that Maradona has always been very nice to me, even before he was our coach and I took my first steps as a professional," Messi said.

"Now that I have him as a coach, he's even more close and he gives me a lot more of his confidence than he did before."

Is Messi better than Maradona?

The comparisons with Maradona have been inevitable, especially after Messi's stunning goal against Getafe that evoked memories of his sometime mentor's solo effort against England 24 years ago.

"He's a legend in Argentina, everyone from a young age knows who Diego Armando Maradona is. At first, it was strange to have him as our coach. The truth is he was a little imposing.

"But afterwards, we started getting used to him and he's been our coach for a while, so now it's normal. Also, he's really close to the players, he's one of the guys, so there's no problem."

He wears the No. 10 shirt made famous by Maradona, who won the World Cup for Argentina as captain in 1986 with a series of dazzling displays in Mexico.

"It's very special for me to wear the shirt of the national team. I think it's a beautiful responsibility to be playing with this shirt, especially with such a football-crazy country watching everything we do. It's something very beautiful," he said.

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Maradona has had well-documented troubles with drugs and his party lifestyle, even being kicked out of the 1994 World Cup, but Messi maintains a much lower profile off the pitch.

"I've always had my family really close by, and my friends," he said. "The truth is that I've never been one to go out much, to go out partying. I've never had those problems because, yeah, my family has always helped me out with that."

The Rosario-born forward said that he is hoping to make the World Cup "mine" despite the weight of expectations on his shoulders.

"I pray. Hopefully, it will be my World Cup, Argentina's World Cup and that we hit the ground running and play up to peoples' expectations and win the World Cup," Messi said.

Who will be the World Cup's best player?

Messi acknowledges that Barcelona's free-flowing style under coach Pep Guardiola gives him more chance to shine than with Argentina, where he has a different role.

The strongest sides going into the World Cup are Spain, England and Brazil. They had a strong, easy qualifying and are very tough
--Lionel Messi

"They are different systems and different styles and everything, no? At Barcelona, Guardiola decided to use me more in midfield and that's when I had more touches on the ball and played more around the front of the area. And well, I've had the luck to be able to score more goals," he said.

"People have an opinion and I respect it. I'm the first person who wants to do well with my national team and perform like I do with Barcelona. I know that this is a really good opportunity for me and I'm going to try to do it."

Messi insists he feels no extra pressure going into the World Cup, with Argentina's first Group B match against Nigeria on June 12, as the intense media cauldron in Spain has prepared him well.

"I already live with constant pressure to play well, to win titles and, as a result, I don't worry about pressure," he said. "I do believe that Argentina isn't Messi alone. It's a group where everyone is going to keep moving forward.

"Once I step onto the pitch, I try to concentrate and get myself into the game. Sometimes, it's hard, but I try to stay focused when I step onto the pitch."

Who will win the World Cup?

Argentina are not among the favorites after struggling to impress under Maradona, and Messi admits that European champions Spain, five-time World Cup winners Brazil and 1966 titleholders England are the teams to beat.

"I think that right now, the strongest sides going into the World Cup are Spain, England and Brazil. They had a strong, easy qualifying and are very tough," he said.

"But you have to show up in the World Cup, and in the World Cup anything can happen."

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