Things could get rather Messi for Liverpool.
Apologizes for the awful pun, but arguably the greatest footballer on the planet has a habit of shattering the dreams of other teams and leaving them in tiny pieces.
At his best, Lionel Messi can bewitch and bemuse opponents with the deftest flick.
“I think he is the best player in the world,” Virgil van Dijk, the Liverpool defender, said about the Barcelona legend.
“But you see how we play and how we defend. We don’t defend one [against] one, we defend all together and we attack all together as well so we will see. We will be ready for him,” he added.
So will bleary-eyed fans from Beijing to Bangkok. They will stay up until the early hours of Thursday morning to watch the living streaming of Barca’s first leg semi-final showdown with Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League.
For many of those armchair supporters dotted around the Asia region, Messi has become a great antidote for the midweek blues.
The little Argentinian has scored 46 goals this season and has won 10 La Liga, or Spanish, titles. He has also helped Barcelona clinch Europe’s greatest club competition four times. Victory against Liverpool would put him 180 minutes away from a fifth crown.
Moreover, in the pantheon of greats, he is closing in on the charismatic Diego Maradona and the polished Pele, despite never winning a World Cup. Today, only former Real Madrid hero and Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is in the same league – giants among soccer pygmies.
“The only thing that matters is playing,” Messi is fond of saying. “I have enjoyed it since I was a little boy, and I still try to do that every time I go out on to a pitch.
“I always say that when I no longer enjoy it or it’s no longer fun to do it, then I won’t do it anymore. I do it because I love it and that’s all I care about,” he added.
While Messi is no longer a young gun at 31, the goals are just as amazing. Breathtaking free-kicks have always been his trademark along with the perennial “golf-style chips” over befuddled goalkeepers with either foot. Time and space seem to stop when he has the ball.
Naturally, adulation and wealth have followed his amazing exploits. With an annual salary of US$84 million and endorsements of $27 million, Messi is the highest paid football player in the world.
But the financial rewards are just a byproduct of his success. “Money is not a motivating factor,” Messi said. “Money doesn’t thrill me or make me play better because there are benefits to being wealthy.
“I’m just happy with a ball at my feet. My motivation comes from playing the game I love. If I wasn’t paid to be a professional footballer, I would willingly play for nothing,” he added.
Indeed, this is the philosophy of a man that Liverpool must stop at the Nou Camp. In the quarter-final against another English Premier League marque club, Manchester United, Messi ran riot.
Two goals inside 20 minutes during the second leg tie consigned the Red Devils to Champions League hell. He was literally on fire.
Yet Liverpool can still dream.
“I don’t want to tempt fate but I think [we] are better equipped to deal with Lionel Messi than Manchester United were at the Nou Camp,” Danny Murphy, the former Liverpool midfield player, said.
“They have to be concerned about [him], of course, but not obsessively so. Stopping Messi isn’t simple but if you’re looking for a midfield three to do the job, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Gino Wijnaldum would be near the top of the list,” he told the Daily Mail, a London-based newspaper.
Still, one piece of advice comes from an unlikely source. Pep Guardiola managed Messi when he was the head coach at Barca between 2008 to 2012.
Now in charge of Manchester City and locked in a duel with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp for the EPL title this season, his comments are revealing. “Don’t try to describe him, don’t try to write about him – watch him,” he simply said.
Of course, the danger of doing that could lead to the Messi effect. For Liverpool, it would be fatal.
Barcelona v Liverpool, first leg, semi-final, Champions League. Check here for times in your region and city.