x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Messi ready to teach Estudiantes

Barcelona's diminutive striker speaks to Euan Megson ahead of the Club World Cup final in Abu Dhabi.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Atlante during the semi-final of the Club World Cup at Zayed Sports City on Wednesday. His goal came with just his third touch of the ball after coming on as a substitute.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Atlante during the semi-final of the Club World Cup at Zayed Sports City on Wednesday. His goal came with just his third touch of the ball after coming on as a substitute.

From humble beginnings often emerge extraordinary talents. It is well-documented that Lionel Messi's voyage from Newell's Old boys' youth team to Barcelona's prodigious academy happened after the Catalonian club offered to fund treatment for the diminutive player's growth hormone deficiency. Messi, like so many others, moved to Europe to further his football education. The path is well-trodden. For European teams, there is a seemingly endless supply of talent from South America willing to move abroad with little more than the promise of a chance to show what they can do.

Almost all of them, however, were not quite as good as 14-year-old "Leo". Indeed, only the most special of talents find themselves cherry-picked at such an age. Eight years on, Messi's height may have peaked, but his stature continues to grow. A Club World Cup triumph, the club's first, would be the cherry on top of Barcelona's record-breaking season. The squad have travelled to Abu Dhabi intent to address the one notable absentee amid silverware in the Nou Camp trophy cabinet.

Messi and Co have the chance to fix things against Estudiantes tonight. But the 22-year-old forward, who returned from an ankle injury to score his side's second goal against Concacaf champions Atlante in the competition's semi-final, is not expecting things to be easy. "I was really happy to score against Atlante," says Messi. "I didn't even know I would be playing until the last moment. But I worked hard, came on and scored an important goal.

"It's going to be very special to play against an Argentine team, something I have never done before. We will have to play as we did last season and have continued to do this year. We have to be serious and vigorous. If we play the way we know we can, then hopefully we can win and complete an historic year." Anchoring Messi's opponents will be his international teammate Juan Sebastien Veron. The former Inter Milan, Manchester United and Chelsea midfielder is more than the Students' captain; he is their inspiration. For Messi, the chance to square-off against Veron is additional incentive.

"The fact their team has Veron makes it even more special," he said. "It will be a technical match that everyone on the field will enjoy and both teams will play football to try and win." It is a dream final, one which aligns with the historical traditions of the tournament. Be it the Intercontinental Cup, the World Club Championship or the Club World Cup, Europe versus South America has always been the real deal.

Yet for all Barca's achievements it is Estudiantes who have been here before and done the business. Barcelona have twice tried, and failed, to claim the trophy. Veron's father was part of the Argentine side who defeated Sir Bobby Charlton's Manchester United over two legs in 1968. The question of which team will create history - Veron for the Estudiantes family connection, Barca for a sixth potential title - has dominated the build-up. Messi's mission is to ensure his breaks his compatriots' hearts and carves another chapter in the Spanish champions' history.

Talking before being presented with the Super.ae award for World Player of the Year in Abu Dhabi on Thursday night - Messi received his prize at Abu Dhabi's Shangri-la hotel where the Barca team are staying as his management decided he should appear via video link up rather than going in person to the ceremony at Abu Dhabi TV studios - Messi says: "Winning a sixth trophy would end an impressive and amazing year - it would be historical for us. For me personally, it would make it a complete year because of the personal awards I have also been given.

"I'm filled with happiness at winning the Ballon d'Or, and I would be very proud to win the Fifa award too. But they are not only for me, they are for the team because without them I would win nothing." Barca's stunning form has coincided with Pep Guardiola taking charge at the club. Having spent the majority of his playing career with the team, Guardiola's appointment as coach has proven a masterstroke.

Somewhat of a managerial novice, Guardiola's promotion from Barca's youth team coach to senior team boss was a shock. Frank Rijkaard had won numerous domestic and European honours, but the club were beginning to stagnate. Giving a son of the club, who supported Barca as a boy and played for them as a man, the top job was a way to reconnect. Guardiola was tasked with transferring his genetic passion for the club to the players. More importantly, however, was arresting the squad's occasionally languid performances and getting them back to playing the Barcelona way.

Out went fading Brazilian Ronaldinho. Messi, with added responsibility as Barca's primary attacking threat, inherited his No 10 shirt. It has not fazed the Argentine. In Barca's all-conquering season last year, Messi was a creator and goalscorer. He has 15 goals in 22 games so far this year. Guardiola's methodology clearly works for him. "At the beginning it was a surprise when Guardiola was appointed coach," says Messi. "But from the first day we trusted him because he taught us the good values and skills to play as a team ."

The return to form has been so spectacular that Barca's fiercest rivals, Real Madrid, have been forced to respond. Not content with watching Guardiola's men dominate the spoils, Real spent big during the summer, bringing in Messi's Ballon d'Or predecessors Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, as well as French striker Karim Benzema. Guardiola responded by signing Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic; four of global football's biggest names and rising stars switching to Spain in what was moving in a headline grabbing glamour transfer period for the country's two leading clubs. In fact, top talent from most of Europe's traditional powerhouse clubs were lured to the Primera League as Spain's elite ignored the economic uncertainty and invested heavily.

Messi, however, believes the Spanish division still lags behind England's Premier League. "Obviously the new players that have come to the Primera League have increased the level," he said. "It is evolving, but the English league is perhaps already there - their teams are always in the final of the Champions League and the later stages of every competition." Barca, with Messi pulling the strings, look poised for more finals themselves in 2010. The same cannot be said of Messi's international fortunes.

The two-time World Cup winners, now coached by the legendary Diego Maradona, struggled through qualification. Maradona's team belatedly reached next summer's World Cup in South Africa and were handed a relatively easy group; only Greece, Nigeria and South Korea block their path to the last 16. Messi is certain they will get there. "We know that it was really hard to qualify, but we also know we have a very good team with exceptional players," said Messi. "If we play as a team and work hard, we can do good things in the World Cup."

First on the agenda, however, is securing more honours for Barca - a club Messi has no intention of leaving any time soon. "As I have always said, I love Barcelona and want to stay here," said Messi. That is not say the player's future could not one day lie beyond the Nou Camp walls. "But of course, we live in the present. I am here now and I do not know what will happen in the future, but I love this club and want to stay for years and years."

If the countless trophies and individual triumphs continue coming, Messi will have no reason to leave. emegson@thenational.ae