x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Has Lionel Messi learned from English lessons?

The football world could have been so different had the Argentine joined Arsenal as a 14-year-old.

Lionel Messi is the world’s best player, yet his failure to score in seven matches on English soil is one rare unflattering statistic. Jasper Juinen / Getty Images
Lionel Messi is the world’s best player, yet his failure to score in seven matches on English soil is one rare unflattering statistic. Jasper Juinen / Getty Images

Lionel Messi is unquestionably the finest player on the planet.

The reigning Ballon d'Or and Fifa World Player of the Year holder is just 23, but he has already played 54 times for Argentina and more than 200 games for Barcelona since making his debut as a 16 year old against Espanyol in 2004.

In that time, Messi has scored almost 150 goals, a staggering strike rate. He has netted 37 times so far this season and is the favourite to score tonight against Arsenal - the last time the two clubs met at Camp Nou a year ago, Messi bagged all four goals.

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Messi's list of individual honours is already so long that there is no space for any more in the respected Marca guide to Spanish football, but Lionel Messi is not infallible.

Unlike Diego Maradona and Pele, the two football legends whom he is readily compared with and ranked against, Messi has yet to lift the World Cup.

There are other statistics which might unnerve him - and give Arsenal hope, though it could have been so different had the Gunners achieved their aim of signing him when he was just 14.

"A man introduced himself as an assistant of Arsene Wenger," said Messi's father Jorge. "'If you suffer problems here, remember Arsenal is very interested,' he said. But we preferred Barcelona."

Arsenal would eventually settle for Cesc Fabregas, who has thrived in England.

The same cannot be said for Messi and his record against English teams is patchy.

Seven times Messi has played against Premier League sides in England, seven times he has failed to score.

Messi burst into the British consciousness with Barca at Stamford Bridge in 2006 after a breathtaking performance which frustrated Chelsea's Asier Del Horno so much that he was sent off for his reckless tackle.

The more sensationalist elements of the British media accused Messi of being a cheat.

That was not the only time that he played well in many games against English opponents. Messi was the live wire of the Barca side at Old Trafford in the 2008 Champions League semi-final second leg.

There was a palpable sense of anxiety among the Manchester United fans whenever he touched the ball and ran directly at speed toward opponents.

He was looking to make up for a poor performance in the first leg at Camp Nou when Barca drew 0-0 with United, but Barca and Messi failed to score in the away leg and the Catalans were eliminated.

Messi was equally ebullient as Barca dominated against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium last season, but did not score and the game finished 2-2.

Some have suggested that the physical nature of the English game shackles Messi because of his diminutive frame. He refutes this and is indeed capable of riding the sternest challenges.

The difference is more that the referees are more inclined to blow for a foul in the Spanish domestic league than in European competition, especially in England.

With 50 European games to his name, Messi has become used to continental referees, but a goal against an English side on the road still eludes him.

The 4,000 travelling Arsenal fans tonight will try to draw strength from Messi's few failings. Underwhelming in last year's World Cup, Messi's uneasy relationship with his national side continued.

It hurts him that many of his compatriots claim that he saves his best performances for Barca.

Messi's defence is that he travelled around the world and played more World Cup qualifiers than any other Argentine, trying to play in a system that changed with the whim of the then coach Maradona and with an ever changing roster of teammates who all play differently.

Messi has never found the same fluency for his country as his club, where he plays alongside Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro and David Villa twice a week.

Unfortunately for Arsenal, it is his club side whom they face tonight at Camp Nou.

sports@thenational.ae