Antonio Conte hailed Lionel Messi as the best player in the world but warned his Chelsea players not to become fixated with Barcelona’s talisman in Tuesday’s imposing Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge.
Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi has an unusually poor record against Chelsea, failing to score in eight previous encounters with the reigning Premier League champions in Europe’s top competition.
But Conte is not placing too much stock in the prospect of that record continuing and observed La Liga’s leaders can hurt opponents from all angles.
Asked whether Chelsea would grant Messi any special attention, Conte replied: “This is a good question. We are talking about the best player in the world.
“Messi has the capacity to solve the situation and create a chance when you are not seeing the chance to score. This means that, with this player, we are talking about a fantastic player.
“We have to pay great attention, but not only to Messi. [Luis] Suarez is a fantastic striker. The rest of the team are very dangerous, so we have to work as a team to try and stop Barcelona — Messi, Suarez, [Andres] Iniesta, the whole team of Barcelona.
“We have to work very hard. We have to know that, during the game, we must be prepared to suffer. But, at the same time, we must have the idea to go and score at any moment.”
As Italy boss at Euro 2016, Conte put forward a tactical masterclass as his unfancied side deservedly beat a Spain team featuring the likes of Iniesta and Gerard Pique 2-0 in the round of 16.
He conceded there were some parallels between that encounter and the two-legged battle about to unfold.
“I think we start this game as underdogs, for sure. Barcelona — on paper — are favourites to go into the next round,” he said.
“But, for this reason, I think we must be excited to take on this challenge. These two games will be very important to understand what is our level in this competition.
“We’ve worked and prepared well. It won’t be easy. We are playing against Barcelona.”
Conte added: “When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too. They can move a result a lot of the time.
“We have an idea. We have a plan in our heads. I think that, in this specific moment, it’s very important to pick the players who are at the top of their form and then try and do our best to win the game.”