Champions League last 16

Messi has a point to prove

February 21, 2009
By Kevin Palmer
(Archive)

Cristiano Ronaldo's elevation to the top step of world football appears to annoy Lionel Messi, who may justifiably feel an impostor has stolen his crown.

GettyImagesMessi: One card away from suspension.

While the little Argentine never stands out as a player who has allowed his extravagant talent to inflate his ego to the sort of level Manchester United's No.7 reached many years ago, Messi still struggles to lavish praise on his rival for the title of best player on the planet.

News that Messi left Ronaldo out of his personal top line-up for 2008 gave weight to the belief that the duo are less than generous in their praise of each other and as the Champions League circus kicks back into gear this week, their battle for the plaudits can resume in earnest.

Even though a head to head clash between Ronaldo and Messi will have to wait as United and Barca have been spared a last 16 meeting of Europe's premier competition, it seems the man leading the scoring charts in this season's Champions League believes victory in this competition could be the key to him earning the recognition he may well merit.

''I have always said Ronaldo is a brilliant player,'' states Messi. ''His instincts are out of this world. He can do anything with a ball, create or score magnificent goals. Until you see him on the pitch you don't realise how physically powerful he is as well.

''Obviously, I hope to succeed him as Europe's top player next season but as usual it will depend on Barca winning things. He won the Champions League and the English title as well last season, so he deserved to be recognised as the best in the world for 2008.''

Personal accolades clearly mean a lot to Ronaldo, who embarked on a very public campaign to claim the FIFA World Player of the Year award in the second half of 2008. Canvassing for votes like a politician desperate to be loved, few were left in any doubt that he craved the adulation.

Messi is less blatant in his desperation to be hailed as the best in his own right and this may be because he suspects his moment will come. Genius is only bestowed on the fortunate few and in the modern era - and despite Ronaldo's rise - this brilliant playmaker remains many people's favourite to emerge as the chosen one.

After Champions League glory passed him by in 2006 as he missed Barcelona's triumph over Arsenal in Paris due to injury, he is desperate to claim the most prestigious prize in club football.

''When you have been so close to a match as big as the Champions League Final, you think all the time what it would mean to get back there,'' he states. ''I was a matter of days away from being fit for the Arsenal game in 2006, but it came too soon for me. Obviously, it was great to see my team-mates lift the trophy and I had played some part in the success earlier in the season, but this is not really like winning the Champions League.

''Ever since, I have wanted to get to a Final in this competition and we have a real chance this season. Barcelona have shown we are a strong side again this season and I only see the English teams stopping us getting to Rome. My guess is the Champions League semi-finals will be between three English teams and Barcelona.''

Messi's is not alone in believing that only the Premier League superpowers can block Barca's path to a Champions League Final appearance in Rome. After last season's all-English finale to the competition between Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow, there is little to suggest the rest have caught up in the months since.

A resurgent Barca are alone in taking giant steps forward in the last 12 months and Messi believes they are ready to jump back into the most historic of winner's circles again. Coach Pep Guardiola has swiftly revived the club that faded so dramatically under Frank Rijkaard and this season, with the La Liga title all but wrapped up, European glory can be targeted.

''The Champions League is a big goal for us and English clubs will need to be at their best to stop Barca,'' continues Messi. ''We're playing with so much confidence at the moment. We're scoring, we're winning and it all seems so effortless, but trophies are not handed out in February. We have to keep it going. Another Champions League title is our goal and one off-day can put the dream in jeopardy.

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''We're much fitter than last season and the new ideas of coach Guardiola have worked well. We like to press high up the pitch and force opponents into a mistake. This season we're never satisfied and we always want more goals. We're having fun winning and that makes things so much easier. We're playing spectacularly, but we are not careless. Still, trophies are not given out in February and we have to push on.''

With Messi and Barcelona apparently joined at the hip, the notion that he may one day strut his stuff in the Premier League seems fanciful, but he is clearly a fan of the English game. ''My name will always be linked with other clubs, other countries,'' he continues. ''Some Spanish papers had me going to Real Madrid, but it is total fantasy.

''I will stay at Barcelona for as long as they want me. English football is great and I love watching players like Steven Gerrard on TV, but I'm sentimentally attached to Barca and don't see any team persuading me to leave. This club made me the player I am today and I owe them so much. My dream is to win the Champions League with this team.''

Champions League glory could only be capped by a World Cup triumph in South Africa 2010 and Messi insists public criticism in his direction from Argentina national team coach Diego Maradona will not tarnish their relationship.

''I've always had a good relationship with him and whatever was said does not matter now,'' he says after Maradona apparently claimed Messi was a selfish player who ignored his team-mates. ''I know he rates me highly. I'm more than happy to line up in an Argentine side coached by Diego.

''He's a sacred figure in our country and the world. I think the atmosphere has changed in our camp. Every Argentine player is motivated like never before to play for Diego. After losing to Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, we know we have to set the record straight in South Africa in 2010 and I think we have the squad to do it.''

Cristiano Ronaldo may believe he has won his battle with Leo Messi for now, but this war is far from over. There may only be room for one of the modern greats to join the football Gods and Barcelona's little magician is well placed to claim the prize.