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Lionel Messi

Mythbuster: Would Messi really struggle in the Premier League?

12:00 GMT+3 25/03/2020
Lionel Messi Barcelona Liverpool
The idea that the Barcelona ace 'couldn't cut it on a cold night in Stoke' has become one of the English game's most annoying and ridiculous cliches

It is a long time since anyone paid much attention to Andy Gray.

However, there was a time when the former Scotland international was one of the most influential figures in British football.

In his role as the main pundit on Sky Sports, Gray played an integral part in changing the way in which the English game was viewed and marketed. He helped champion the idea that the Premier League was the best in the world.

Indeed, during a discussion on the 2010 Ballon d'Or nominees a decade ago, Gray claimed that the favourite for the prestigious prize, Lionel Messi, would not be as dazzling or prolific in England.

"He would struggle on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium," the ex-Aston Villa forward famously told presenter Richard Keys.

Gray subsequently vanished from the United Kingdom's television screens – he and Keys were sacked in January 2011 over a sexism scandal – but the idea that Messi could not cut it in the Premier League has yet to fully disappear.

Only last month, amid uncertainty surrounding the Argentine's contractual situation at Barcelona, Emmanuel Petit questioned why Manchester City would be interested in signing the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

“Honestly, I don’t think he’s suited to the intensity of England," the former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder told Paddy Power. "He doesn’t like being closed down and being fought – in Spain, he’s protected."

By whom or from what, exactly, was not made clear.

It matters not, though, because Messi has not just been performing miracles in Spain for the past 15 years. He has also worked his magic in European competition – primarily against Premier League clubs.

Indeed, Messi has scored more Champions League goals against teams from England than any other nation.

Since making his tournament bow as a 17-year-old in a group game against Shakhtar Donetsk in December 2004, the Argentine attacker has been faced with Premier League opposition on 34 occasions.

He has been involved in 32 goals in those games, netting a whopping 26 times in total.

Arsenal have been his preferred victims. Messi missed the 2006 Champions League final win over the Gunners through injury but he has been punishing them ever since.

In just six appearances against the north London outfit he has netted nine times, with four of those goals coming at Camp Nou in April 2010.

"Messi is the best player in the world by some distance," Gunners boss Arsene Wenger told reporters after the game. "He's like a PlayStation player. He can take advantage of every mistake we make."

However, Messi's most notable performances have arguably been reserved for Manchester United, whom he has scored against four times.

The Rosario native produced a staggering leap and headed finish to open the scoring in the 2009 Champions League final against the Red Devils – underlining for the first time that he really can do it all – and also fired home Barcelona's crucial second goal in their 3-1 win over the same opposition at Wembley Stadium two years later.

It must be said, though, that many people's favourite Messi moment against United was the borderline career-ending dribble that dumbfounded Phil Jones in the quarter-finals of last season's Champions League. Jones, however, was hardly the first Englishman to have been embarrassed by Messi.

He produced a memorable nutmeg on James Milner during a win over United's neighbours Manchester City at the same venue and in the last 16 of the tournament in 2015, a sublime piece of skill that took the breath away of those watching, including then-Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola.

Hiring Guardiola has since worked out very well indeed for City, and they even beat Barcelona in a group game at the Etihad Stadium in 2016, but that remains their only victory over a Blaugrana side containing Messi, who has netted six goals in six appearances against City.

He has also scored two in two against Tottenham, producing a Wembley masterclass in his one and only start against Spurs, in last season's group stage.

Of course, it is not as if Messi has not tasted bitter disappointed against English sides; on the contrary, they are responsible for two of his toughest defeats.

He has been involved in six goals in 10 clashes with Chelsea, who have quite the rivalry with Barca, and he netted a double in a 3-0 win over the Blues in March 2018 to become a Champions League centurion.

However, it was Messi who crashed a crucial spot-kick against the crossbar in Barcelona's shock semi-final elimination at the hands of the west London side in 2012.

Had he scored, the Catalans would have been 3-1 up on the night – and 3-2 ahead on aggregate – with just under 40 minutes to see out against 10 men, after the first-half dismissal of John Terry.

Former Barcelona winger Alexis Sanchez later revealed that the penalty miss reduced Messi to tears and the Argentine cut a similarly "depressed" figure when Liverpool's Joel Matip ran into him after Barcelona's capitulation at Anfield last year.

Barca had won the first leg 3-0, with Messi scoring twice in Catalunya, but sensationally lost 4-0 at Anfield to throw away their chance of a first Champions League win since 2015.

What both nights underline, though, is that Messi, for all his super-human feats, is human. However, they do not support the claim that he would struggle in England. Far from it.

Opponent Games Starts Minutes Goals Assists
Chelsea 10 10 835 3 3
Manchester City 6 6 540 6 2
Arsenal 6 6 537 9 1
Manchester United 6 6 512 4 0
Liverpool 4 4 360 2 0
Tottenham 2 1 117 2 0

After all, we're talking about a player who sits joint-fifth on the list of goals scored against the Premier League's 'Big Six' since the start of the 2011-12 season – level with Harry Kane (26) – despite never having played in the English top flight.

It is, therefore, difficult to even comprehend how one could argue that the intensity of the football might not suit him.

Or that a side like Stoke City in their Tony Pulis-inspired pomp would have troubled Messi more than Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid – against whom he has scored 31 times, making them his second-favourite victim in club football.

And that is even accounting for cold, windy weather – which some people evidently believe is unheard of in Spain.

As Messi was once quoted as saying by Sky Sports, "Those that say that [I couldn't play in England] should realise I played in awful conditions in Rosario when I was 11 years old, with glass on the pitch, with holes and everything!"

Messi will, of course, always have to live with accusations that he is not as great as Diego Maradona because he has not won a World Cup – or that he would not have achieved anything without such stellar supporting casts at Barcelona down through the years.

However, the idea that he could not do it on a wet night at Stoke should finally be banished to the past.

Just like some of Andy Gray's other beliefs...