Saturday, February 18, 2006 ESPNsoccernet: February 19, 5:19 PM UK
Argentine maestro Lionel Messi believes compatriot Hernan Crespo is the man Barcelona should fear ahead of their Champions League showdown with Chelsea.
Barca's main men: Ronaldinho, Messi, Eto'o (GettyImages)
The verbal arrows have been flying between Chelsea and Barcelona ever since the draw pitted the kings of England and Spain together once again, yet Messi provides a very mature assessment of this grudge match for a man so young.
At the age of 19, the Argentinean has shown great maturity on the pitch this season and spending 20 minutes in his company confirms he is equally level-headed off it. While the experienced performers involved in this rivalry may struggle to contain their emotions at Stamford Bridge next week, it seems Messi will not suffer from such problems.
Rather than fanning the flames of animosity between the two sides, he prefers to play the diplomat and his assessment of the threat posed by Chelsea is honest and thoughtful. 'It's a massive tie between two great sides and whoever wins will think they have a great chance of becoming champions of Europe,' begins the gifted attacking star.
'Both myself and Barca's other forwards will need to be on top of our game. Chelsea are very strong defensively; they form a solid block that takes some shifting. They are physical, good in the air and don't easily let the opposition in behind them. Terry, Gallas, and the Czech goalkeeper [Petr Cech] are all superb players. That said, we have plenty of our own match winners in the attacking-third. I'd back Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto'o to find a way through any defence.
'Like us, they have quality all over the pitch: Lampard and Makelele in midfield and Drogba, Crespo and Robben in attack. Their coach, Jose Mourinho, is a great organiser and motivator. He gets the best out of his players and then some more. As Chelsea beat Barca in the Champions League last season, it's good for us to have a chance to put one over them this time. We don't like losing any time and don't intend to let Chelsea prevail again. We certainly have the team to do it.'
His words of praise for Crespo come from the heart. Both Messi and Crespo were otherwise engaged when these two giants of European football clashed in heated circumstances last season, but it seems he is relishing the chance to lock horns with the legendary Argentinean hit-man.
'He's just a great guy and a brilliant striker,' is his assessment. 'You have to fear him. Crespo is a born goal-scorer, someone you can never take for granted. He has the ability to lose a marker in an instant, he instinctively knows where the ball is going to fall in the box and he's an amazing finisher.
'Throughout his career, he has scored goals in great quantities and I suppose he'll always be like that. Strikers like him are pure gold. I've a lot of admiration for what he's achieved for Argentina, in Italy and now in England. I'd love to be in the same Argentina side as him at the World Cup, but I'm hoping he has two quiet games against Barcelona. Maybe he won't play from the start; that would be nice.'
When the legendary Diego Maradona hails you as the best player to emerge out of Argentina since his twinkle-toed mastery won the 1986 World Cup almost single-handed, it would be easy to let the praise go to your head. But this kid seems to take it all in his stride.
Youngsters coming from South America into the very different environment of a major European club often struggle to find their feet, yet either as a starter or a super-sub, Messi has made his mark with Barca this season and the news coming out of Spain suggests he will shake off an injury worry to play in this game against Chelsea.
Maybe then his legend can be confirmed as he aims to show the world the skills La Liga watchers have been marvelling at in recent months. 'It's flattering to be compared to a monument of world football like Diego, but he was a one off,' he continues. 'No one will ever have his ability with the ball. I met him recently and he told me to just be myself and not to get carried away with all the hype in the media. That was good advice.
'Even I didn't expect things to take off as they have for me this year. The World Youth Cup win was the starting point and then everything just accelerated. I began to establish myself at Barca and I was called up for my first full international for Argentina. It's been unbelievable and I'm very proud of what I've done so far in my career. I don't feel any pressure. On the pitch the only sensation I have is enjoyment.'
Recently voted the best young player in Europe, he still sounds like a kid as he sums up his daily routine and it seems his determination to learn under the guidance of coach Frank Rijkaard is at the forefront of his mind.
'My coach has helped me in so many ways,' he confirms. 'Technically, tactically and as a person. He's so good at reading the game. Even the smallest detail doesn't get past him. After giving me my debut for Barca, I had to wait until this season to get back into the side and I did find that the time dragged, but now I realise that it was the best thing for me. I was a youngster and had to get used to the rhythm and style of football at the highest level.
'Every day at the training ground is an incredible experience. I've learnt so much from being close to Ronaldinho, Eto'o and the rest. You can only benefit from playing alongside guys who are so skilful and who have such a great feel for the game. I'm very grateful. My team-mates accepted me straight away and made sure I quickly felt a real part of the squad.
'Still, I am still a teenager and this is my first proper season in the first team, so I dare not become complacent. Barca have too many first-class forwards for that. Ludovic Giuly and Henrik Larsson have been on the bench, but they would be definite starters anywhere else. I'm not the finished article. I have to get physically stronger and I have to improve my finishing. I'm working hard to be calmer in front of goal.'
With natural ability oozing out of his every pour, Barcelona know they have a real gem in the making on their hands in Leo Messi. If the brighter stars in the Barcelona side divert Chelsea's gaze as they renew rivalries with Frank Rijkaard's men, this kid is more than capable of ending their Champions League dreams.