Thomas Vermaelen on Chelsea's Eden Hazard being close to Lionel Messi's level, Luis Enrique to Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne

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Thomas Vermaelen in action for Barcelona

There is no-one in the world of football – now or in history – like Lionel Messi, but Thomas Vermaelen believes Chelsea’s Eden Hazard comes pretty close.

Vermaelen will likely come up against his Belgium team-mate as he returns to London with Barcelona in a mouthwatering Champions League last 16 tie on Tuesday, although the 32-year-old will make way for Gerard Pique should the Spaniard overcome a knee problem in time for the first-leg.

One thing that lights up the former Arsenal man is talking about teammate Messi, who will no doubt be the biggest threat to the Blues on Tuesday as the La Liga leaders come to Stamford Bridge – the scene of a number of memorable Champions League ties between the sides.

And asked if the Blues have their own mini-Messi in the shape of Hazard, Vermaelen is well-placed to judge his international team-mate.

“There are similarities,” Vermaelen said in an interview ahead of the game with the Daily Mail.

“They are both quite small with that low sense of gravity so they can turn and twist very quickly. They have that element of surprise in their game and they can move so fast.

“And especially in the form he (Hazard) is in now, I saw the goal he scored recently against Watford, for example, he’s a world-class player.

“To compare him to Messi is so difficult but he is up there with the very best.”

Vermaelen believes compatriot Eden Hazard is close to Lionel Messi's level.

Vermaelen believes compatriot Eden Hazard is close to Lionel Messi’s level.

Pushed on what it’s like being up close and personal with the diminutive Argentine, having moved to the Camp Nou from the Gunners in 2014, Vermaelen added: “What amazes me is that he does what he does every day. I came here and thought that he maybe saves the best stuff for games, but he does it day-in day-out.

“He’s unbelievable in training. If you gamble that he’s going to go one way then he’ll go the other and when he comes at you on the diagonal at the speed he moves at it’s very difficult to stop.

“You might know that he’s probably going to shoot off his left but he’s always quicker than you so knowing doesn’t help. He doesn’t get too emotionally involved with the player that’s marking or tackling him either. He never gets distracted.

“He is just getting on with the job. It is pure talent and it all comes naturally. I think for him it doesn’t even feel special.

“There are moments when you see him do something and you just laugh. Even sat on the bench during a game, you watch what he’s doing, and you just laugh.”

Vermaelen is an avid, intelligent watcher of the game, as opposed to just being someone half decent at football who makes a living from it.

He has had more time to do that than he would have wanted since he arrived in Catalonia with injuries blighting his time with the Blaugrana.

But this season they have been kinder and when he played eight full games consecutively over Christmas he reminded everyone what an impeccable defender he is.

Vermaelen could feature against Chelsea, unless Gerard Pique recovers from injury.

Vermaelen could feature against Chelsea, unless Gerard Pique recovers from injury.

He was faultless in the 3-0 Clasico win over Real Madrid on December 23. His ability to anticipate and distribute so cleanly make him perfect for the way Barcelona defend, something he gives credit to the coach who signed him and who he has great affection for, Luis Enrique.

“Some people have the wrong idea about what it’s like to defend for Barcelona,” he said.

“They think it’s an easy job because the team is all about attack. But the demands they have here, and with the previous coach Luis Enrique as well, are very high.”

The mention of Enrique is interesting in light of how high up Roman Abramovich’s wanted list the Spaniard is. Vermaelen’s respect and affection for his former coach is striking.

“I wasn’t always playing but the relationship with him was very good,” he said.

“The way he talks to players is excellent. He knows how to make a player feel right. If you asked me about the best managers I have worked with I would always include him.”

Vermaelen is a big fan of former coach Luis Enrique.

Vermaelen is a big fan of former coach Luis Enrique.

Abramovich has long craved a Barca-style Chelsea. And Vermaelen believes, were he to replace under fire Antonio Conte at the Bridge in the summer, he could affect as radical a change as Pep Guardiola, another former Barca boss, has at Manchester City.

“I think so,” he adds. “I think it would be similar to what you are seeing with Guardiola at City. It might take some time but I think it can work very well.”

Sticking with City but going back to Belgium, and Vermaelen could benefit directly from Guardiola’s influence if a supremely confident Kevin De Bruyne inspires the De Rode Duivels against England at the World Cup.

“He is a clever player and his game suits the way Guardiola plays,” Vermaelen says about another very talented international colleague.

“He’s technically very good with an unbelievable passing range and a great shot. And don’t underestimate his physical qualities either, he can cope with the English game. He is looking like player of the season.”

De Bruyne could have been facing Barca this week for Chelsea had patience not run out with him in London.

“When I first saw him in the national team I was already impressed with his qualities,” Vermaelen went on. “He has developed because he is playing every week for a massive club.”

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Lionel Messi can win World Cup for Argentina without sacrificing Barcelona, says Ernesto Valverde

David Cooper 17/02/2018
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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde insists Lionel Messi will not be distracted from his quest of winning a treble with his club this season – even though the World Cup is looming this summer.

A club-versus-country wrangle is rumoured to be brewing between Barcelona and Argentina.

Argentine federation chief Claudio Tapia revealed that he has asked Messi to play fewer games for Barcelona between now and the end of the season, in order to conserve his energy for Russia.

Messi, who will turn 31 on June 24, is heading into the last World Cup of his prime years and will be desperate to go one further after Argentina lost in the final to Germany in 2014.

But Valverde is adamant that Messi does not sacrifice either his club or country ambitions for the other.

“I have full confidence in all my players and especially Messi,” Valverde said ahead of Saturday’s clash with Eibar.

“His aim is to win everything with Barcelona and his national team.”

A more pressing concern for Valverde is his Barca’s recent form, as they drew a blank at home to Getafe in La Liga last week.

After facing Eibar, they have just a three-day break before travelling to Chelsea for the first leg of their round-of-16 Champions League clash.

“It is more mental than physical, the weeks when you have four days rest you can manage better than three,” added Valverde.

“We will have three before we take on Chelsea and Chelsea will have four. That day extra, to have a break from the pressure of staying in the cup is good to have.”

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Barcelona midfielder Paulinho's injury recovery causing strain in relationship with club

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Paulinho's injury has led to relations being strained between player and club.

Strains have appeared in the relationship between Barcelona midfielder Paulinho and the club over his recovery from a foot injury suffered last month.

Paulinho sustained a hairline fracture on a metatarsal during the Copa del Rey quarter-final against Espanyol, although the Brazilian was allegedly unhappy with that diagnosis.

He reportedly was unable to put any sort of pressure on his foot for days after the injury but had recently been playing with pain-killing injections.

The midfielder was ultimately allowed to bring in his own personal physiotherapist, Caio Mello, who also works with the Brazil national team. It is that step that has brought the situation to the attention of the Spanish media.

Paulinho’s form has dipped in recent games and the injury is no doubt a key factor behind that. Although the fracture itself has reportedly healed now, he still experiences pain in the foot, impacting his ability to play.

The 29-year-old is not only a first-choice midfielder for Barcelona but Brazil as well, and in a World Cup year, any injury that could keep him out long-term would be catastrophic. It is believed that this is the reason Paulinho was allowed to hire his own therapist rather than working exclusively with the club’s medical staff.

However, it is rare for any Barcelona player to go outside the club for non-specialist treatment, given the high standard of the club’s medical staff. This level of discord between player and club over an injury is almost unprecedented for Barcelona.

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