MADRID - Lionel Messi's destruction of Arsenal in the Champions League on Tuesday has filled the Madrid-based sports press with trepidation ahead of Saturday's "Clasico" between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
"How do we stop this guy?" was the headline in Marca after the Argentina forward hit four past Arsenal to send holders Barca through to the semi-finals 6-3 on aggregate. "Messi is the one who scares us", said As.
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The 22-year-old World Player of the Year tops the La Liga scoring chart with 26, two ahead of Real striker and compatriot Gonzalo Higuain, and keeping him quiet is an achievement that has eluded some of the best defences around this season.
"You have to take your hat off to him because he is a player who makes the difference," Real and Spain defender Sergio Ramos said on Real's website.
"Our weapons will be to stay focused and show the maximum possible respect to Barcelona."
Real top the standings on goal difference with eight matches remaining but after Saturday's clash the head-to-head record will separate the arch-rivals if they are still level on points.
Barca have the advantage after Pep Guardiola's team won 1-0 at the Nou Camp in November and defeat for Real would be a serious setback to their hopes of success in the only competition they remain alive in this season.
It could also spell the end for coach Manuel Pellegrini, hired from Villarreal after Real president Florentino Perez splurged around a quarter of a billion euros on players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in the summer.
Under the Chilean, Real failed to make it into the last eight of the Champions League for a sixth straight season and suffered an embarrassing exit to third-tier Alcorcon in the King's Cup.
As said on Tuesday Alvaro Arbeloa would be charged with stopping Messi on Saturday and noted that the Real and Spain defender had impressed when marking the Argentine at previous clubs Liverpool and Deportivo Coruna.
"Why Arbeloa? Because he already marked him in four previous games and he did it successfully," the paper wrote. "He has the necessary method, focus, acceleration and the speed."
Marca columnist Alfredo Relano asked whether it was even possible to stop Messi given his current form and made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion related to his patchy performances for his country.
"I only know one way to (stop him) and that is to appoint Diego Maradona coach of Barcelona," Relano wrote, referring to the current Argentina coach.
"But that's not possible between now and Saturday so we can all agree that the Clasico is to a very large degree in Messi's hands."comments