We’ve all dreamt of sharing the pitch with Lionel Messi. Whether it be daydreaming of being the ‘tiki’ to his ‘taka’ in the build-up to another wondrous goal, or in the nightmare scenario of trying to stop the world’s best No10 as he darts through on goal.
Few will ever get to experience what the feeling is truly like, however former Manchester United star Paul Scholes has lifted the lid on being in that unenviable position of facing Messi in reality – as a midfield opponent, twice in 2008, and then in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals.
Although a former top-class player himself, Scholes was surprisingly candid in revealing what it is really like to be on the receiving end of a Messi masterclass:
I am not ashamed to admit that in the games against Barcelona I spent a lot of the time just hoping he would take up positions as far away from me as possible,
said Scholes in his personal column for the Independent last week before going on to honestly describe, in detail, how an incident involving himself and Messi was missed by the referee, and would have written a very different story in the history of the Champions League as his side faced Barcelona at Old Trafford in the second-leg of the 2008 semi-final.
It was a moment I will never forget. He went past me, I stuck out my leg and Lionel Messi went over. With the score 1-0 to us, I had fouled him in our area.
When I think about our win over Barcelona in that game, on our way to the second Champions League title of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, I always remember that tackle. Yes, I scored the only goal of the tie, and it was one of my better ones. But I will never forget that couple of seconds when the best footballer in the world deceived me into fouling him and I waited for the world to fall in.
It should have been a penalty to Barcelona, and an away goal would have won them the tie. But for some reason the referee didn’t give it, the game moved on and even Messi did not make much of a fuss. The relief was overwhelming for a few moments – and then I was back into the game.
He got his own back in the end. I faced Messi in the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011, when Barcelona beat us comfortably both times.
Scholes then described the little details he noticed about the Argentine playmaker whilst sharing the same pitch.
There have been so many superlatives to describe Messi’s career that you find yourself just adding to the pile of words about him. So these are some of the little things that you learn when you play against the man himself which you might not see on the television.
First off, he never speaks on the pitch. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard him say a word. Second, you won’t believe how strong he is for a little man. As a finisher, there are few players as composed as Messi. When you can score as many different kinds of goal as he can, you have every reason to be confident.
Elusive is the word that immediately springs to mind when I think about Messi’s style of play. You think you have an eye on him and then – blink – he has gone, only to reappear somewhere else in space, with the ball. When you try to face up to him and make a tackle you know what it is he is going to do with the ball. The problem is staying with him.
The former England midfielder also noted that Messi’s grounded and introverted nature is something he himself feels he had in common with Barcelona’s star.
He avoids the highs and lows of football. You rarely see him go over the top in a goal celebration, just as he never gets too downhearted. That’s a quality I think that I shared when I was a player. The game changes so quickly and you have to get yourself in a position mentally where you can deal with whatever is thrown at you.
Messi is as famous as any footballer has ever been and yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t know much about him. I read that he is a family man, and likes to walk his dogs, but beyond that he’s a mystery really. I like that. Especially these days, when people’s feelings about every issue are there to be read on Twitter or wherever. Keep something of yourself back. It is a strength.
With Barcelona travelling to face the blue half of Manchester in the Champions League this month, Scholes left his column with this stark reminder for Messi’s opponents:
It only takes a second for that little No 10 to trick you into doing something daft. And you can’t always rely on the ref not to see it.