Lionel Messi is “the best player in history” and the man Barcelona’s players will once again look at to guide them past Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals, according to Ivan Rakitic.
Argentina forward Messi won his 10th LaLiga title at the weekend with Barca, whose focus now turns to a last-four clash with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in Europe’s premier club competition.
Messi is a four-time Champions League winner too and it is the 31-year-old who Klopp’s Reds must worry about most at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.
Such expectation brings extra pressure, yet Rakitic insists Barca’s team-mates will also look to Messi to make the difference.
“Whenever our captain says something, we’re there to follow him,” the Croatia midfielder told a news conference on Tuesday.
“There’s a special added pressure to win the Champions League. Barca has played so well in the last few years that that adds pressure.
“Leo has been [a LaLiga] champion 10 times in 15 years and seeing him lift the cup with extreme happiness engages us. If he’s so happy to win every time it makes the rest of us more eager.
“We know we’re Barca and following the best player in history gives us more confidence.
“Messi has already won four Champions Leagues – he won’t get nervous. What needs to be understood is that Leo is ahead of us and we follow him.
“We’ve proven we’re ready in every game. We want to be in the final in Madrid. We know the last few years haven’t been great for us in this competition, so we want to get there this year.”
While last year’s Champions League runners-up Liverpool may not possess a single individual on Messi’s level, their vaunted front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have once again excelled this term.
However, Rakitic has highlighted how difficult they are to break down at the other end.
“I know Klopp really well and really respect him,” he added.
“I played against his teams and they’re always tight and organised. He’s made his teams improve and you can see how he works.
“Defending against Liverpool is going to be complicated. You want to stop them as early as possible and not give them space. We need to take the game into our hands and keep them away from our goal.”
That strong organisation owes much to the form of Netherlands international Virgil van Dijk.
The central defender was crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year on Sunday and the admiration for him extends to his peers in Spain too.
“Van Dijk is one of the best defenders in the world this season and there’s a lot of respect for him and the rest of his team-mates,” Rakitic said.
“It doesn’t matter what his name is, we know Liverpool’s defence is well-ordered, but we hope to cause them more problems than in their other games this season.”