Ibrahimovic and Messi go head to head

DANIELLA MATAR Associated Press Published:

MILAN (AP) -- With most fans keeping an eye on Lionel Messi, it will be Zlatan Ibrahimovic that is out to prove something when AC Milan hosts defending champions Barcelona on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.

Ibrahimovic spent an unhappy season at Barcelona before heading to Milan after falling out with coach Pep Guardiola and several of his teammates. But on Saturday, he scored his 29th goal of the season in Milan's 2-1 win over Roma.

"We have had so many champions, this one seems to me to be one of the best," Milan vice president Adriano Galliani said. "It will be a great match."

In the Champions League, Ibrahimovic has scored five goals in six games. Messi, however, scored that amount of goals in his last Champions League game, a 7-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen.

"He is the best in the world," Ibrahimovic said. "Messi grows better every year and he's beating record after record. I hope he goes on a long time like this, I enjoy watching him play football. Am I as strong as him? It's not up to me to say, I'm doing well here and what's most important is that Milan wins.

"I don't have anything to prove, what others say is only their opinion. Will I greet Guardiola? I don't know, the past is the past, I don't think this is important for either of us."

Guardiola, who also downplayed the rift with Ibrahimovic, knows that Messi can once again be decisive for the Catalan club.

"Ibrahimovic was a very important player for us, our 99 points that season were also down to him," Guardiola said. "His first six months were excellent. He's a player who's always done well wherever he's been, always been decisive. However, it's not about Barcelona against Ibrahimovic.

"Messi loves to play and always rises to the occasion in the most important part of season, at the end. We are trying to help him get in the best positions on the field and enhance his talent."

Barcelona, which has won the competition twice in the past three years, is favorite to go through, although it faces a stern test against Milan, which is the Italian league leader and seven-time European champion.

"The whole team has to have a perfect game, including me," Ibrahimovic added. "We are playing against the strongest team but we have nothing to lose. We have prepared well for this and I hope we can translate that onto the pitch. We are the only Italian side in Europe and we hope to remain so even after these two games.

"Without my teammates it's impossible to do what I do. We're a team, at the moment I'm scoring a lot of goals, but those are phases. Without the team it is impossible. You lose and you win together. We are a group, we are Milan."

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who played with Ibrahimovic during his year at the Catalan club, knows he is very much Milan's danger man.

"Zlatan is a very complicated player to play against because he is a very complete player, very talented and he keeps the ball well," Pique said. "So we have to stay very concentrated not to let him have time on the ball and not to give him space. He scores a variety of goals too, so he's very dangerous but I think we have the ability to defend against him.

"He is one of the best players in the world. It was a pleasure to play with him, he contributed to our success too and always helped the team. Now we're facing him as a rival and he's one of the leaders of the squad as he has been everywhere he's been."

Milan was hit by a late blow when defender Thiago Silva limped out of Saturday's win. The Brazilian will miss both legs of the quarterfinal.

The two clubs have already met in the Champions League this season, in the group stage, with Milan drawing 2-2 at the Camp Nou -- thanks to a late equalizer from Thiago Silva -- and losing 3-2 at home when both teams were already qualified for the knockout stages.

"The best thing about that is that we know them better, but worst is that they know us better," Pique said. "So I think it will be more difficult but we have to try to play our game, impose our style.

"Thiago Silva is a great player, one of the best defenders in the world at the moment. But I think that with a club like Milan, which is so great a club and has such an extraordinary history, the 11 which will go out on the pitch tomorrow will do very, very well."

Milan should welcome back Maxi Lopez and Robinho after the pair missed the weekend's match with injury. However, fellow strikers Antonio Cassano, Filippo Inzaghi and Alexandre Pato are still out.

Barcelona has injury problems of its own. Adriano is sidelined and, although Ibrahim Afellay will travel to Milan, the Dutch midfielder is expected to be a game time-decision as he makes a return six months after having knee surgery.