Italian forward Mario Balotelli has reacted to Lionel Messi‘s stunning free-kick in Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final clash against Liverpool by saying the Barcelona talisman should never be subjected to comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo again.
Messi and Ronaldo have formed one of football’s most intense and enduring rivalries, and there was hope that the two could face off in this year’s final after trading starring performances in earlier rounds.
Ronaldo’s hat-trick brought Juventus back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16, as they won 3-0 at home. A day later, Messi scored twice and assisted two more as Barcelona turned a tense second leg against Lyon into a 5-1 rout having drawn away from home.
The draw for the rest of the competition saw the two kept on opposite sides, meaning they could only meet if their teams made it to the final.
In the quarter-finals, Ronaldo scored against Ajax in the first leg to seemingly give Juve the advantage after a 1-1 draw, while Messi picked up an assist in Barcelona’s 1-0 first-leg win at Manchester United.
He followed that performance up by scoring twice in the second leg, and when Ronaldo gave Juve the lead in Turin the script for a titanic clash in the final seemed set. But Ajax stunned the Serie A club, scoring twice to complete the comeback and knock Juventus out of the competition.
That meant the Portugal star was left to sit at home to watch Messi’s latest show of brilliance, as Liverpool were blown away despite dominating for large spells of the game.
The Argentine scored Barcelona’s second of the night tapping in the rebound after Luis Suarez, who had opened the scoring earlier, saw a shot cannon off the crossbar but fall straight to Messi’s feet.
That set the stage for his free-kick, giving Barca a 3-0 lead that leaves Liverpool with a mountain to climb in the second leg next Tuesday.
And Marseille forward Balotelli believes that goal has ended the Messi vs Ronaldo debate.
“For the love of football please do not compare him to the No.7 of Juventus anymore!” Balotelli said in a post to his Instagram Stories.
Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic admits the players are inspired to follow wherever Lionel Messi leads as he is “the best player in history”.
Coach Ernesto Valverde sounded a note of caution by conceding Champions League semi-final opponents Liverpool are a “fearsome rival” but Rakitic suggested having Messi on their side trumped that considerably.
The Argentina international has been judiciously rested over the last couple of weeks as, with a healthy lead they were able to coast to an eighth title in 11 years at the weekend, Valverde has had one eye on European competition.
Messi has still been required to come up with decisive moments – he came off the bench to score the winner which won the title against Levante – and that gives his team-mates a huge boost.
“Whenever our captain says something the rest of us are there to follow in his footsteps,” said the Croatia midfielder.
“Leo has been a league champion in 10 of the last 15 years and seeing how he lifts the title with extreme happiness, that engages everyone.
“If he is happy to win every title and win every game what can you say about the rest of us? We are even more eager if possible.
“Being able to follow the best player in history gives us a lot of confidence.
“How many Champions Leagues does Leo have? He already has won four and I don’t think he’s going to get too nervous about tomorrow.
“What needs to be understood is that Leo is ahead of us and we follow him.”
Valverde struck a more conservative tone in stressing what would bring success against Jurgen Klopp’s side was team-work and sticking to their game-plan.
Liverpool have never lost in four visits and are the only English team to win there, twice.
They have kept four clean sheets in their last five matches in league and cup and in their last 10 games they have scored 29 times.
“Our intention is to win the game,” he said.
“Leo is feeling fine. We know throughout this month we have been able to rest him more than others.
“We have played three games a week, we’ve played against (Manchester) United and now we have to play against Liverpool so the workload is quite high.
“We wanted to win the title, we have managed that, so we are ready for this.
“We know how valuable it is if they don’t score but as we know in this kind of tie you don’t need to play one good game you need to play two good games, you can’t be absent in the game for five minutes because if you do that against Liverpool they will lock you into your half of the pitch.
“They are a powerful team with extraordinary forwards and level of pressure, rhythm and pace which is very high.
“It’s an extremely difficult rival to play, they’ve lost only one game in the Premier League and that says a lot about them. I think it is a fearsome rival.”
What has made Liverpool so formidable this season is their defensive record, with 18 clean sheets and just 20 goals conceded in 36 league matches.
No small part of that is down to centre-back Virgil Van Dijk.
“We are talking about one of the best central defenders in the world,” added Rakitic.
“He has had a fantastic season, he has won the prize for the best Premier League player of the season.
“There is a lot of respect for him and the rest of his team-mates. But it doesn’t matter what their names are, we know Liverpool’s defence is very strong and they don’t leave many spaces.
“We want to cause them more trouble tomorrow than they’ve had in previous games this season.”
With six games left in their La Liga campaign, leaders Barca sit nine points clear of nearest rivals Atletico Madrid.
And as they have beaten and drawn with Atletico in La Liga this season, three wins over the next eight days – in games against Real Sociedad, Alaves and Levante – would guarantee Barca an eighth Spanish top flight title in 11 years.
That could be the first part of a ‘treble’ for Ernesto Valverde’s side, who will meet Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on 25th May – seven days before Madrid stages the UEFA Champions League final.
Having overcome Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals, Barcelona will meet another English side – last year’s beaten finalists Liverpool – in the last four.
Lionel Messi could reach another personal milestone against Sociedad on Saturday as he aims to notch his 600th competitive goal for Barcelona’s first team – he is just three away.
Watch Valverde wax lyrical about Messi in the video above.