Jamie Carragher exclusive on Lionel Messi: ‘The best player of all time’ didn’t show it against Liverpool

Ryan Baldi
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher discusses Barcelona legend Lionel Messi
Jamie Carragher remembers Alvaro Arbeloa coping perfectly well with a teenage Messi

In the second instalment of an exclusive three-part series in which Jamie Carragher sits down with F365 to discuss the Messi-Ronaldo phenomenon, the Liverpool legend remembers what it was like to come up against a teenage Lionel Messi on the cusp of a Clasico masterclass.

In part one, Carragher explained his first-hand experience of Ronaldo’s evolution “from a boy to a man”.

When Liverpool faced Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League in March 2007, they came up against a young Lionel Messi who was already a senior Argentina international, a regular starter for the reigning champions of Spain and Europe and who had tormented Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the group stage that season.

But Messi was still only 19 years old. He was coming off his first full season in the Barcelona team, a campaign in which he’d scored a modest eight goals in 25 games. He would finish the 2006/07 campaign with 17 goals in 36 appearances. He was a talent and well on his way to becoming a star.

He was not, though, the focus of Rafa Benitez’s gameplan.

“We were aware of him, but – a bit like Ronaldo when he first came to United – he still wasn’t the star of the show,” former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher says. “They had Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Deco. You were thinking about them a little bit more because they were more recognisable. You knew this kid was special, but he was still young.

I remember Rafa Benitez playing [Alvaro] Arbeloa against Messi – I think it was his debut. He was a new signing for us. He was normally a right-back, but Rafa played him at left-back in the Nou Camp because he thought, being right-footed, he’d be able to handle Messi coming inside on to his left.

But Messi wasn’t a massive standout at that time to the point the team and the game plan was being built around him.

READ MORELionel Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo: F365 puts the debate to bed with season-by-season comparison

Barcelona had won back-to-back La Liga titles under Frank Rijkaard with an attacking formula that saw the right-footed Ronaldinho stationed on the left flank and, once he’d emerged to usurp Ludovic Giuly, Messi cutting inside from the right. The notion of inverted wingers is commonplace in today’s game. It was a much rarer approach in the mid-2000s, until Barcelona popularised it.

Messi had already shown the ability to slice open defences with through balls when drifting in from the right. It was a threat Carragher and co. had to monitor.

“When someone’s coming inside, you’re thinking they’re either going to get a shot away, so you have to move out to try and block it, or if they’re coming into the middle of the half they’re trying to play that ball inside you – a straight pass to a diagonal run,” he says. “Reading the game was always one of my strengths, rather than having the pace to get back. I could feel something was coming so I’d try and fill those spaces before the ball was played.

[Javier] Saviola played in the first leg. He was trying to turn me. He was quick and sharp. And then Eto’o played in the second leg. You’d have Messi coming in from the right and Ronaldinho coming in from the left. We were getting to the stage then where wingers were players who’d come inside, rather than go around the outside. So as defenders, we’d been primed for that for a couple of years. As soon as the winger comes inside, you’ve got to be aware of that slide-rule pass.

In the first leg at the Camp Nou, Deco pulled the strings for the home side, scoring with a 14th-minute header and hitting the post from a free-kick late on. Messi flitted in and out with flashes of threatening play, cutting in from the right to create a first-half chance for Deco and seeing a goal-bound effort blocked by Arbeloa in the second half.

But Liverpool profited first from a Victor Valdes howler allowing Dirk Kuyt to score from close range and then from defensive confusion before John Arne Riise rifled home what would be the winning goal.

In the return fixture, Barcelona won 1-0, with Eidur Gudjohnsen the scorer, but were eliminated via the away goals rule. It was a match Liverpool dominated and could have won comfortably.

It was also a limp end to Barcelona’s defence of the Champions League title they’d won the previous season. And Messi, after a bright showing in the first leg, had been practically anonymous at Anfield.

“People talked about him as if he was something special and there were videos of what he’d done in the Barcelona youth teams, so you were aware of him,” Carragher says. “But the best player of all time? I can’t say I thought that was going to happen from my experience playing against him.”

But just four days later, Real Madrid’s defenders would have offered a very different appraisal. Messi produced one of the standout performances of his early career in a pulsating Camp Nou Clasico, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw.

It was a display that showcased aspects of Messi’s game, elements of his greatness, that would become familiar over the ensuing decade and a half. His first goal saw him cut in from the right before rolling a cool finish past Iker Casillas and into the far corner. His second evidenced scoring instincts that would help him net more than 700 times in his career, rifling into the roof of the net from close range.

And the third, a game-saving solo effort in stoppage time that saw him glide past two challenges before finding the far corner with unerring precision, signalled a special talent on the verge of superstardom.

After disappointment against Liverpool, Messi’s treble against Madrid signposted his brilliance – even if the heights he’d go on to reach, at that stage, were still unimaginable.

“The players who end up being great players, they always have those moment like Messi’s hat-trick against Madrid,” Carragher says. “But at that age he’s still finding his feet. You’ll have ups and downs. Maybe he didn’t do particularly well at Anfield, but the next game he goes and gets a hat-trick against Real Madrid. That’s what the greats do. You see that and think, ‘This guy is going to be pretty special.’

There have been so many players we’ve thought that about in the past, but to go on and do what he’s done, it’s crazy. For me, he’s the best player we’ve ever seen play football. And you can’t predict that of any 19, 20-year-old when you’re looking at where they’re going to go.

Next week, the Liverpool icon discusses the legacy of the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry and the impact the duelling GOATS have had on each other, the nature of fandom and future generations of football stars.

READ MOREWhy Ballon d’Or hogger Lionel Messi has actually scored zero proper goals for Argentina