Though La Liga giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are not due to meet for the first time this season until 29 November at Camp Nou, anticipation levels are already building. Aware of just how much El Clásico means and a past master at proving Madrid’s undoing, Barça superstar Lionel Messi discussed the match in depth with FIFA.com, as well as his team’s current form and how Jose Mourinho has bolstered Los Blancos.
Access the first part of this exclusive interview by clicking on the link in the right-hand menu.
FIFA.com: Lionel, Franz Beckenbauer recently cited Barça as an example to follow for 21st-century football. What’s your opinion?
Lionel Messi: I think he’s right. A lot of teams tried to copy the ‘Guardiola system’, but it’s by no means easy. You need players who have the ability to play that way and a brave coach who sticks to his guns when things don’t go exactly to plan, like Pep Guardiola did. Nobody remembers the difficult start we had [to Guardiola’s reign], but we didn’t alter our style of play in the slightest. To be honest, playing for this Barça side is really great fun.
Guardiola tends to play you in a slightly different position every match, even deploying you as a ‘roving No9’...
He tries to find the best position for me in each game so that I can see plenty of the ball and to try and surprise opponents who always mark me tightly. That’s why I always try to drop slightly deeper to draw the defender out of position and that way I can face up to him and go past him in a one-on-one situation. That’s where the support of team-mates like Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta, [David] Villa or Pedro, who are great at playing one-twos, is vital. I love to play up front and get in the box.
Do you thing Real Madrid are stronger than they were last season?
Yes, but I think that the same thing happens every year – they’re our main rivals. Last year they pushed us right up to the final matchday. They’ve kept hold of nearly all their most important players and have strengthened well with the two Germans (Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira), and particularly with my friend Angel Di Maria. He’s a true phenomenon, you’ll see. But the thing I’d highlight is the mental change they’ve experienced since Jose Mourinho arrived. They’re still a really great team, but from the outside looking in you can see that they’ve had a greater winning mentality right from the off.
Have you been watching their recent games?
Yes of course, I wasn’t going to miss the (UEFA Champions League group) game against AC Milan, we watched it on TV. I liked the way they played in the first half. They’re a team who are playing better football, they’ve got a very strong unit and they really go for it, just like us. And if we let them (laughs), they’re capable of competing for every title.
Turning back to Barcelona, what does the signing of Javier Mascherano bring to the team?
I’m happy that ‘Masche’ has joined us for two reasons. Firstly on a personal level because he’s a good friend of mine and someone I know well from national-team duty, so I was very pleased he signed. In footballing terms I won’t be able to tell you anything new about him, he’s had a great career. The lads did admit they were surprised how skilful he was, having been used to seeing him doing so much running and battling for Liverpool. He’s so good at intercepting and winning the ball that sometimes people struggle to see what a good player he is. He’ll be able to make the most of the incredible technical ability all the players here at Barça to keep improving.
We know you were very frustrated at the manner of Argentina’s defeat by Germany at South Africa 2010, but did you feel the same after Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final exit against Inter Milan?
They’re two difficult memories. We didn’t deserve to go out against Inter, we only needed one more goal. Although it's true that it was our first-leg performance that cost us that tie, because we weren’t up to the task. Even so we deserved to reach the final, we were the better team and we played better football too. No disrespect to Bayern [Munich], but I was convinced that whoever won out of Barça and Inter would win the Champions League as their morale would be sky-high ahead of the final.
How do you see the field in this year’s Champions League?
It’s very tough and demanding, as always. There are no easy games, and I’m not just saying that. When the draw was made everybody said that we’d got an easy group in [FC] Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, but it’s not the case. The Danish side and the Russian outfit have given us a really tough time, while we’ll be made to sweat to get a result in Athens. You get nothing for free, which is why is it’s the best club competition.
Are Barça the favourites?
In terms of footballing ability, yes we are. If we’re able to keep up the standard of performance we’ve shown in recent times then we’ll be in the running. As will Chelsea, Real Madrid, Bayern and Inter, in my opinion. And if I had to pick just one, I’d go for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who have started very strongly this season and who I see as the team to beat. I’ve also been surprised by how well Tottenham have done, particularly in the games they’ve played at White Hart Lane. They are very strong at home. It’s a long road to the final at Wembley, but we’ll be fighting to be there or thereabouts.
Why haven’t you included Manchester United, the team you beat in the 2009 final, in that group?
They’re a very strong team but they’re in a transitional period at the moment. I’m not sure, some days I think they look very strong and on others less so, but of course they’re among the favourites, just like the Arsenal side of my friend Cesc Fabregas. [Javier] ‘El Chicharito’ Hernandez is the United player who has most caught my eye: I didn’t know much about him before so his displays in South Africa were a pleasant surprise.
On the subject of old friends, you were recently visited by Samuel Eto’o. Do Barcelona miss him?
‘Samu’ was a very important part of our game plan. Not only did he score goals but he was always first to put pressure on the opposition, which used to spur all the rest of us on. I repeat that, in my view, he was a crucial figure in Inter’s treble success, within the game plan set out by Mourinho.
Is David Villa the best possible replacement for Eto’o?
El Guaje is similar to ‘Samu’ in terms of his movement, the way he looks for space and always knows where the goal is. He’s a really hard worker. Both of them put their bodies on the line to snap up every opportunity that comes their way. With every passing game our mutual understanding grows but, even though we didn’t know each other before, the way we play means we’ve gelled very well.
A slightly more delicate question if I may. Were you annoyed by the claims that Zlatan Ibrahimovic made about his time at Barcelona?
To be honest I wasn’t. I never had any problems with ‘Ibra’, and I don’t think he had any with the rest of the lads either. We all got on very well. I don’t know exactly what he said or what he was referring to, but I don’t take it personally. He’ll know what he meant. Plus, I think his comments were more focused towards Pep Guardiola than us.
One final question, how do you expect the upcoming clásico against Real Madrid to pan out?
It’ll be a huge game, like it always is. I tend to do well in these games, I’ve put in some great performances and scored some nice goals. That said, they’ll be looking for revenge this season because Barça have done better than they have in La Liga and in the Champions League in recent seasons. I suppose they’ve been really fired up against us ever since our 6-2 win in the Bernabeu (in 2008/09) but I think, if we play the way we’re capable of, we’ll definitely beat them this time too. They’ve strengthened this year thanks to their new signings and Mourinho, but in my opinion Barça are still the better side. I’ve no doubt it’ll be a game to savour both for the players on the pitch and the fans off it.