If Arsene Wenger were asked to paint a portrait of his perfect footballer, he would put down his vision of a 5′ 7″ Argentine, sporting a cheeky boyish grin to distinguish him from the host of similarly diminutive stars at his own club.
While the Arsenal manager will offer a stout defence of the likes of Abou Diaby, Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia when any cynic questions them, the one player he would covet more than any other is unlikely to ever cross his path with anything less than menacing intent. This will be the case once again on Wednesday night.
Messi’s four-goal performance in last season’s quarter-final demolition of the Gunners sent shockwaves through Wenger’s dressing room and, such was the scale of their massacre at the Camp Nou, many questioned whether Arsenal could recover from their battering.
Their revival this season has been commendable, but they now they come face-to-face with the man who took them apart last season.
“It will be too much to ask for something similar to my last performance in these next games against Arsenal, but I always try to find a way to get better and that has to be the target this time,” Messi says. “The Arsenal match last year was very special for me. The comments that were pushed in my direction from some of the most famous names in the sport after that victory meant it was one of the greatest moments in my career so far.
“It’s not often you score four goals in any game, but to do it in a Champions League quarter-final against a top side and in a game where the side needed something after we found ourselves in a difficult position – it was amazing for me.
“I love to watch Arsenal on television because the way they play the game is very like Barcelona, but we feel we are better at this gameplan than everyone else. Now we have to prove it in the games that really matter.”
As a quartet of scintillating goals from the virtuoso nicknamed the ‘The Flea’ put Arsenal to the sword in no uncertain terms last year, Wenger was left to lick his wounds as his side were soundly beaten.
“It’s not so easy for us when we play teams who have a different mindset, like Chelsea or Inter Milan, because they have the intention of trying to stop us rather than playing a game that is more attractive for the spectators to enjoy,” Messi continues. “These are the kind of teams that are tougher for us to play our best against, but Arsenal and Manchester United want to try to win matches using the sort of method we employ at Barca and that means you can have a good game against them.
“We will not take Arsenal lightly for one minute, as they showed in the two matches against us last season that they can be dangerous opponents if we lose our concentration for a moment.
“There was a moment in the last tie when they scored at the Camp Nou and we needed to respond very quickly and that will serve as a reminder that Arsenal are dangerous opponents. We must be confident if not arrogant that we can succeed.”
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona dream team are playing on a different stratosphere to the rest in European football right now, and it appears their domination has done nothing to foster feelings of complacency.
“You cannot allow your desire to be a winner to be diminished by achieving success before and I believe there is room for improvement in every sportsman,” he adds. “I’m only 23 and there is no way I believe the end of my development is coming soon. I have many years to get better and better and that has to be my ambition. The day you think there is no improvements to be made is a sad one for any player.
“Every year has seen me make improvements to my game so far and that should continue for some time yet, with games like the one against Arsenal the kind of moments you want to create again and again.
“I’m lucky to be part of a team who help to make me look good and they deserve as much of the credit for my success as I do for the hard work we have all put in on the training ground.
“Setbacks like the one we suffered in last season’s Champions League against Inter Milan are good for us because they inspire you to do better the next time. Well, the moment is here now and we have to rise to the challenge and try to reach this year’s final.”