BARCELONA (Reuters) – Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde paid tribute on Friday to Lionel Messi’s “permanent competitiveness”, after the five-times world player of the year dragged Argentina into next year’s World Cup with a hat-trick against Ecuador last Tuesday.
Messi has been in free-scoring form for his club this season, hitting 11 goals in seven Liga games and 14 in all competitions.
On Saturday he faces one of his favourite opponents in Atletico Madrid, having scored 27 goals in 34 games against them, as Barca look to extend their 100 percent start to the league season.
Tuesday’s talismanic display in the high altitude of Quito answered the surprisingly large number of critics Messi has in his home country, who have claimed that he does not replicate his performances for Barcelona when playing for Argentina.
Valverde, however, said no-one at Barca has ever doubted their all-time top scorer.
“If he has any critics they are few and far between, but when you see great things over and over again you stop being surprised,” the coach told a news conference on Friday.
“Messi does what he did the other day (in Ecuador) permanently and we all expected him to deliver and he did. Most of all I’m impressed with his permanent competitiveness and the responsibility he takes on his shoulders.
“You know that he is capable of deciding every game on his own and he always tries to. He wears the tag of being the best player in the world but he doesn’t just carry it, he demonstrates it every single day. That takes a huge level of competitiveness.”
Despite Messi’s record against Atletico, Valverde said he expected a typically tough game against Diego Simeone’s side as Barca aim to pick up an eighth consecutive Liga win and maintain their five-point lead at the top of the standings.
“You always mark out the fixtures with Atletico on the calendar, they are always very important games, historically very close and you never know what could happen,” the coach said.
“Atletico know how to make their goals count. They have their share of goalscorers but they are one of the hardest teams to score against.
“It’s true we have got a good scoring record at the moment, but we know we’re facing an uncomfortable opponent. If they score first, it could cost us a lot to get back into the game, we’re very clear about that.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)