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Thursday 21 September 2017

Alonso -- Real will not focus on Messi

Tony Barrett

DIEGO Maradona says he is "playing kick-about with Jesus". Thierry Henry reckons "he is not human" and Arsene Wenger believes he is like something from PlayStation. Lionel Messi is a player in such irresistible form that even hyperbolic compliments like these do not seem exaggerated.

Four goals against Arsenal took the Barcelona forward's total in his past eight matches to 13. Patches do not come much more purple than this one. Little wonder then that Xabi Alonso, like the rest of the footballing world, was left wondering what it would take to stop Messi after the 22-year-old's tour de force that single-handedly wrecked Arsenal's European hopes.

The difference between Alonso and his Real Madrid team-mates is that while most others ruminate on such a conundrum, they actually have to try to do it.

What's more, the galacticos have to do it in the toughest setting of all -- El Gran Clasico, the biannual meeting between Real and Barcelona, their arch rivals, which carries such enormous historical and contemporary significance that it stands alone as football's most significant club match.

"Messi is a fantastic player, of course, and we know that we will have to play at our best to deal with him," Alonso said. "But the important thing is to think as a team and play as a team and also not to focus on just one player because if we do that, then we could become distracted from the challenge we face. It is Real against Barcelona, not Real against Messi, and whoever is the best team on the night will take the points.

"Hopefully that will be us. But no matter what happens against Barcelona there are lots more games and plenty of points to play for. Nothing will be decided by this one game. If we can keep Messi quiet, that will obviously make things easier for us but we cannot do that at the expense of our own plan.

"We have fantastic players of our own and hopefully we can play our own game and if this happens, then we will have a better chance of winning."

Optimism

When Alonso looks around the home dressing-room at the Bernabeu before tonight's eagerly awaited clash, he will see, in players of the quality of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, Kaka and Iker Casillas, causes for optimism aplenty. But, perhaps, there is one individual more than any other who, despite being relatively unheralded in comparison with Real's cast of stars, could be the most crucial of all.

Alvaro Arbeloa, like Alonso, left Liverpool in the summer to join Real's bid to reclaim their status as Spain's number one club from Barcelona. A solid and versatile defender who has only recently started to receive the acclaim he deserves, Arbeloa's greatest performance for Liverpool arguably came on his full debut against Barcelona, on a famous night when he switched from his usual right-back position to left-back in an attempt by Rafael Benitez to thwart Messi's trademark surges from right flank to penalty area.

The plan worked a treat, Arbeloa kept Messi quiet and Liverpool recorded a 2-1 win at the Nou Camp.

A repeat performance this evening would suit Alonso down to the ground. "That was a special night," the 28-year-old midfield player recalled. "Alvaro did a really good job for the team. The kind of job that you need if you are to win such difficult matches. Obviously it is the players who score the goals and the ones who play in attack who usually get the headlines but sometimes victories come down to the fine details that are not always easy to see and are even harder to do.

"This is what Alvaro did that night. Can he do the same again? We will see. Alvaro certainly has the confidence of the team because we know what a good defender he is.

"But Barcelona are very special. We are doing great so far in the league but so are they and this means that whoever is going to win this league will be one of the best teams in the Spanish league over the past 20 years. We are fighting against one of the best teams, maybe one of the best teams in football history, but we are doing well and we are excited by the challenge ahead of us."

Alongside Ronaldo, Alonso, who recently became a father for the second time, has been the most successful of Real's summer imports, outshining even Kaka.

The midfield artistry that made him a hero at Anfield has ignited Spain's most successful club to such an extent that they go into tonight's game ahead of Barcelona in La Liga, albeit with only a single goal separating them from their great rivals.

In Ronaldo, Alonso believes Real have their very own PlayStation player. "It is only when you play alongside him that you realise just how good he is," Alonso said. "He is a threat, an absolute threat, in every moment of every game for all defenders.

"You know that he can dribble past two or three players to turn a difficult situation into a promising one and he can score fantastic goals. He determines and he decides games. He is a match-winner."

The same sentiments apply to Messi, and the presence of two of football's biggest stars lends El Gran Clasico added lustre. "It is the biggest club game of the season," Alonso said. "Hopefully the game will match the occasion." (© The Times, London)

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