How Lionel Messi changed his preparation as Barcelona clash with Liverpool
It's no secret that Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi has been targeting Champions League success this season.
The Argentine, 31, has won Europe's biggest prize four times during his career, most recently in 2015.
But Barcelona haven't gone past the quarter-final since then and have witnessed Real Madrid claim the crown in each of the last three seasons - notably beating Wednesday night's semi-final opponents Liverpool in last year's final.
Los Blancos' success in Europe in recent campaigns has somewhat overshadowed Barca's dominance in La Liga, despite this week winning an eighth title in 11 years.
And that led to Messi making an impassioned plea to teammates last summer to make a sixth European Cup for the club a priority this season.
That led to Messi and coach Ernesto Valverde, as well as the club's fitness staff, sitting down at the start of the campaign to figure out a plan to get the best out of Barca's talisman when the season reached its most critical juncture.
In recent years - notably last year - Barca have struggled to play with tempo and intensity when the Champions League has reached its last eight; key men who have been overworked earlier in the season have been unable to find the necessary one or two per cent extra when really necessary, notably Messi himself in last year's loss to Roma.
But this term, Valverde and captain Messi - who turns 32 in June - have sought to solve that problem.
And that has meant at times wrapping the No.10 in cotton wool, resting him to ensure he's at his best. Earlier in the season, Messi that was infrequent, occurring only in the trip to Athletic and against Leganes before Christmas, plus the Champions League dead rubber vs Spurs.
In April however, it has become a regular event. In the build up to the Manchester United quarter-final first leg, Messi played just 29 minutes at Villarreal in a 4-4 draw - scoring one of two injury-time goals.
Between ties, he was rested completely against Huesca, as was the entire team, and in the last two La Liga matches has played just 74 of 180 minutes.
It isn't as simple as just taking him out of the firing line though.
Valverde is also having to balance the issue that Messi wants to not miss entire games, wanting to play every 3-4 days - even if just for 30 minutes - in a bid to ensure he keeps a rhythm.
Certainly, paying closer attention to Messi's fitness levels throughout the campaign has been working, 46 goals and 22 assists in 45 games attests to that.
Having scored twice at Camp Nou in the 4-0 aggregate win over United in the last round, Messi will now be hoping to do something similar against the Reds.
And ex-Liverpool striker John Toshack believes that, fit and firing, he could prove the difference between the two sides.
“It's very difficult to bet against Messi,” said Toshack. “The way Messi is, you have to be silly to bet against Barca. He's capable of breaking everything.
“Messi is something else, I think. As in golf there is a handicap, here there should be a Messi handicap.
“They should give a goal of advantage to the opponents when they play against Messi.”
Fully rested and on a mission for European glory, Liverpool will need to be at their best defensively to stop arguably the greatest ever.
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