Magician McGeady targets Barça
If comparisons are odious, then Aiden McGeady must surely dread the routine of picking up his morning newspaper. Barely a day passes, after all, without Celtic's extravagantly gifted young winger being likened to another of the beautiful game's great entertainers on Scotland's back pages.
It was McGeady's former manager, Martin O'Neill, who kicked off the craze by mentioning the then 18-year-old in the same breath as Ronaldinho after he scored on his debut, and such is the joy, individuality and originality with which the young Glaswegian continues to play that Celtic fans have taken to nicknaming him 'Aideninho' and 'The Green Garrincha'. Team-mate Artur Boruc also noted publicly the similarities between the 21-year-old and Cristiano Ronaldo, while insisting that McGeady's potential is greater, and yet perhaps the most humbling compliment of all - at Celtic Park at least - is that he has been touted as the natural heir to the late, great Jimmy Johnstone.
The days when Johnstone, Celtic's greatest-ever player, jinked his way through Europe's best defences to inspire this Scottish club to European Cup glory are long gone of course, but for the second season in succession, the Bhoys do find themselves in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, facing a Barcelona side genuinely wary of their hosts' mercurial and largely unheralded star.
Lionel Messi yesterday paid his own accolade, saying: "I really like the way McGeady plays football. He is a natural talent who can create a brilliant piece of play in the blink of an eye." This came in the wake of Catalan sportspaper El Mundo Deportivo publishing a glowing tribute, which lauded the Republic of Ireland international as "a blond version of Messi and Diego Maradona", adding that a lack of media exposure is all that currently prevents him from achieving the same fame and renown enjoyed by Messi and his Argentinian predecessor.
McGeady, who at 15 turned down the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal to sign for Celtic, certainly modelled himself on Maradona as a youngster, mimicking El Diego's famous keepy-uppy routines with golf and tennis balls, all the time honing his extraordinary natural talent. Maturity, awareness and an explosive, more direct edge to his game have followed, and inevitably the English Premier League's heavyweights are once again hovering.
However, as Gordon Strachan's Bhoys prepare to renew acquaintances with a Blaugrana side they have met four times over recent years - winning once, losing once and drawing twice - McGeady told FIFA.com that he intends savouring every moment of testing himself against the superstars to whom he is so often compared in the colours of the club he supported as a boy.
FIFA.com: Aiden, it has been a great season for you, and it seemed that you really came into your own when Shunsuke Nakamura was injured. Was it a source of inspiration that you became Celtic's main source of creativity during that time?
Aiden McGeady: It probably did have an effect because I knew that with such a creative player like Naka sidelined, the onus was on me to be the one to go past defenders and create chances. We didn't really have a like-for-like replacement at the time, so it definitely put some added pressure on me - pressure which I like to think I thrived on. I've simplified my game a lot this season and tried to be a lot more direct rather than overdoing it with the tricks, and it seems to have taken my game to another level. I'd always rather Naka was in the team though. He brings so much to us in terms of his vision, his touch and his set pieces, and we always have a better chance of winning with him in the team.
You talk about simplifying your game and you do seem to have developed an extra yard of pace this season that's allowed you to simply knock the ball past the full-back and beat him for pace.
There's no doubt about it, I feel it myself. I've a lot of confidence that I can outpace whoever I'm up against these days. My game's changed a lot in that respect. In the past, I would almost always try to beat the defender with a trick or take the ball inside, but now I feel I can just run and run. I think me doing that takes a lot of pressure off the team, especially in the European games. In terms of developing pace, I asked our fitness coach (Frenchman Gregory Dupont) what the best way was to help me with explosive speed and he gave me a programme that seems to have worked really well. I certainly feel the benefit.
Would you say that you're enjoying your football more than ever?
I would, yeah. I think this is the most consistent I've been since I've come into Celtic first team and every time I go out there, I feel I can add something in terms of creating or scoring a goal or two.
You now face up to Barcelona. You were at Celtic on the occasions the clubs met recently, but this will be your first chance to play against them.
That's right, I made it on to the bench last time (during the 2004/05 season), so I'm really looking forward to hopefully playing against them this time. Obviously it will be a fantastic, another amazing occasion at Celtic Park, and I think Barcelona will go into it really fancying their chances. I'm pretty sure this was the draw they were hoping for. Everyone will see us as the rank outsiders, and rightly so, because Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world with quality right through their squad. But hopefully we can cause an upset.
Celtic Park on European nights is certainly very special, and your home record in the Champions League - 12 wins, three draws and one defeat (albeit to Barcelona) - proves that.
Our home record is superb - up there with the best in Europe. We've won six from six in the group stage over the past two years and if our away record wasn't such a shambles, we'd maybe have managed to do even better. But playing at Celtic Park gives us massive belief and you see that from the teams we've beaten here: Man United, AC Milan and the like. The atmosphere is absolutely electric, the best around, and there's no doubt it has a major effect on us.
Obviously the Barcelona team you're facing is packed with stars, but is there any individual who stands out for you?
Messi, definitely. A couple of years ago, I would have said Ronaldinho but he doesn't seem to have quite reached the heights that he has in previous seasons, although you can never write off a player like that. Then you have Eto'o, Henry... the list goes on. But Messi is the main man for me. This season, he's taken his game to another level and, although Cristiano Ronaldo's up there too, I would say that he's the best player in the world right now.
You mention Ronaldo. A lot of people have compared you to him, and Artur Boruc recently said you could become even better. How do you feel about such comparisons?
What I don't like is when people think I'm the one making the comparisons and get on my back about it. I'm never sure about it. People can say what they want and, in one way, it's flattering to be compared to one of the best players in the world. But I'd never compare myself to these great players - I know I have a long way to go.
You're playing for your boyhood team, you've won leagues, cups and reached the last 16 of the Champions League two years running now. What more do you hope to achieve at Celtic?
Keep winning medals and bring some joy to the fans; that's what it's all about. I don't think you ever tire of winning leagues and cups and at the end of my career I want to look back on having won a good few. that's why I signed a long-term contract (until 2011).
Is it an incentive to stay here and become one of the club's all-time greats?
Well, to become a legend here, I think you have to stay for at least seven, eight years anyway if you look at the real greats down the years, even the likes of [Henrik] Larsson more recently - he was here for seven. Being honest, becoming a legend is not something I've thought about, but I certainly see myself staying here for the next few years anyway and hopefully, if I can help the club be successful here and in Europe, the fans will appreciate that whenever I do leave.
If there's been one drawback for you over the past year or two, it has been the situation with Ireland. Are you confident of things turning around now that Giovanni Trapattoni is in place?
I don't see why not, we've got a great group of players there. Most of them are playing week in, week out in the Premiership, the backbone of our team is fantastic in terms of individual talent. For whatever reason, we just haven't clicked but hopefully that's something the new manager can sort out because we've had some horrendous results during the European Championship qualifiers.
So you see hope there in terms of getting to South Africa?
Absolutely. There have been a lot of young players coming into the squad over the past couple of years, myself included, and once we click as a team and the younger guys start showing what they can do, I think we'll be pushing really hard to get there. It's a really tough draw we've been given, but to get to the World Cup you always know you'll have to beat some great teams and we're not afraid of the challenge.