Ernesto Valverde: Messi ‘unique in the history of football’

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde is hoping the combination of Lionel Messi’s expected return and a passionate Nou Camp crowd will be enough to overpower Roma in the quarter-finals of the Champions League this evening.

Barca host the first leg of the last-eight tie and are likely to have their star man back in the starting XI following hamstring trouble. Messi suffered a niggle on international duty with Argentina and began on the bench for Saturday’s visit to Sevilla. Even that could not stop him locating the spotlight, grabbing an 89th-minute equaliser after stepping off the bench at 2-0 down.

“Messi is unique in the world. Unique in the history of football,” Valverde said yesterday.

Defender Jordi Alba offered his own assessment on the 30-year-old’s influence, adding: “Leo Messi is such a footballer that he makes all his team-mates play better when he’s on the pitch.”

Valverde also made sure to send out an appeal to the club’s followers to turn out and create a cacophonous atmosphere as they bid to reach the semi-finals for the first time in three years. The crowd was in fine voice during a 3-0 victory over Chelsea in the previous round and more of the same is expected against opponents he expects to be pushed hard by.

“I really hope the Camp Nou fans turn out in huge numbers to back us against Roma and roar us on like they did against Chelsea,” he said.

“Being favourites doesn’t mean anything as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the reality of the game. Everything’s up for grabs. We’ll have to play extraordinarily to beat them.”

Barca could well be at peak strength, with Messi likely to be joined in the side by fit-again screening midfielder Sergio Busquets. The Spain international is back in training and ready to take over from Paulinho if required.

Roma are making their first appearance at this stage of the tournament in a decade but would expect to do significantly better than their previous visit to the Catalan giants — a 6-1 group stage defeat in 2015.

Coach Eusebio Di Francesco said : “We come here with the desire to do something extraordinary, but equally with great respect for our opponents — perhaps the best side in the world. We want to continue to dream...”

The Roma boss is without Cengiz Under and said midfielder Radja Nainggolan only has a 50/50 chance of playing after picking up an injury early on in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Bologna.

Di Francesco added: “Nainngolan is an important player for us. Between today and tomorrow he will go through some tests so that we can know for sure if he’ll be able to play or not: he has about a 50% chance right now.

“In my opinion Barcelona are a good enough team on their own without getting the added help of any hints on who we might play, not that I think that they would base their whole plan around which line-up we put out anyway.

“No-one is guaranteed to play. I wanted to keep everyone on their toes because each of them can look to make the difference for us. Tomorrow, more than ever, we have to stick together as a team.”


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