He’s the best player in the world and a king of diplomacy but for one second on Wednesday, Lionel Messi put aside his deadpan look and cracked a smile that told a thousand words.
“Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale are both great players, they are doing so well for their clubs,” said Messi.“And I always want to play with the best players. But I have to be careful with what I say because I can’t see them leaving their teams soon. But of course I want to play with the best players.’
They were words that won’t go unnoticed at Old Trafford or White Hart Lane.
After dropping Rooney to the bench for Manchester United’s defeat by Real Madrid on Tuesday night, Sir Alex Ferguson may no longer consider him ‘the best’ but Messi seemed in no doubt during a 40-minute conference in which he was grilled on Barcelona’s recent poor form and the apparent mountain they have to climb against AC Milan in the Champions League next week. They are 2-0 down from the first leg in the San Siro but Messi, who has never scored from open play against an Italian team, is adamant Barcelona will not follow United out of the competition.
“We’re all aware of the problems at the moment,” said the Argentine, who has scored an incredible 50 goals so far this season but has seen his team lose twice recently to rivals Real Madrid.
“We’ve had some big defeats and we all have to do a bit more to change and improve the situation. We have a very important match next week and we have to focus on that.
“I hope we overturn the 2-0 loss. Why can’t we score three when they scored two in Italy? That’s what everyone expects from us and this is what we are going to try to do. Milan will be difficult but we can do it. We all have to do more. We have to show we can play better, like we did before.”
Messi delivers everything with the calm, disinterested shrug of a teenager who looks like he would rather be in a dark room playing computer games. Sitting on a podium with his four Ballon d’Or trophies below him, he looked bemused by the fuss, nervously sipping on his water and scanning the room looking for a familiar face or a place to hide. As some journalists applauded his entrance at the small Onix Rambla Hotel in the centre of the city – a rarity not afforded to any player I have seen before – he smiled nervously and sheepishly took his seat. He hides the genius but that makes it all the more intriguing and confusing.
The 25-year-old was promoting the opening of the Messi Gallery, a temporary exhibition of his boots, shirts and trophies from his increasingly remarkable career. He has designed his own boots too, the flash but not too flashy adizero f50, and has even produced his own philosophy for the game, the Messi Mantra.
It all goes with the territory of being the best in the world and one of the best of all time. One chink in his armour is his record against Italian teams, just three goals in nine matches and all from the penalty spot. That is something you feel will have to change against AC Milan if Barcelona are going to overturn the 2-0 deficit.
“Italian teams have good players,” he added. ‘These records exist to be broken and I hope I break it next week. Italian teams are famous for having strong defenders. It’s a problem for everyone.
“I focus on the ability of myself and Barca to overcome this problem. We need to overcome it and next week’s match is the best way of doing it.”
Much of the blame for Barca’s recent dip in form has been put down to a lack of leadership but Messi refused to use manager Tito Vilanova’s absence for cancer treatment as an excuse. ‘Vilanova has affected us a lot of course. His absence has affected the dressing room but we can’t use this as an excuse for our results. We just have to hope they are back soon.’
And what of the two men against whom he is forever compared?
“I’ve been asked a lot of times about Ronaldo,’ he said, without even a trace of emotion. ‘We don’t make comparisons though. We don’t exist as players just to see which of us is better. We want to win trophies. I’ll leave the comparisons to you.”
“Working with him when he was Argentina coach was good”.