Jack Wilshere names his best XI of the World Cup and recalls facing ‘genius’ Lionel Messi for Arsenal

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ONE of my proudest possessions is the Lionel Messi shirt which hangs on my son Archie’s wall.

It reminds me that I had the privilege of being on the same pitch as the little genius who is, without doubt, the greatest footballer I’ve ever seen.

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Jack Wilshere playing against Lionel MessiCredit: Getty

I played against him twice in Arsenal’s two-legged Champions League tie against Barcelona in 2011.

And to be up close — well as close as he lets you — is to experience first hand a footballer from another planet.

I really am so proud to tell my kids I went up against Messi, he’s unreal.

Footballers, however amazing they are, are supposed to have prime years and then decline — but can anyone seriously say he’s on the slide? No way. He’s a beast of a footballer.

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The Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo debate has been raging throughout the World Cup and I’ve got all the respect in the world for Ronaldo — but Messi is something else — his skill and intelligence are scary.

Back when we were drawn against Barcelona, some of our team were going, ‘Oh no,’ and I was asking, ‘Why? We can beat Barcelona’.

From memory, there was also some weird stat at the time that Messi had never scored a goal in England.

Maybe it was the naivety of youth, because as I stood in the tunnel looking at Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, it dawned on me how big this tie was.

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I was concentrating more on Xavi and Iniesta because they were my direct midfield opponents. But once we got going, I saw exactly why Messi was so special.

He would drop back into midfield, pick the ball up and be linking with Xavi and Iniesta which was an absolute nightmare.

Messi actually missed a few chances in the first leg.

But it was still his perfect pass to David Villa which got them their goal. It was so difficult to get the ball off him, you couldn’t get near him.

He’s stronger than you think with the way he rides tackles and holds players off too.

I know people say that first leg was one of my best-ever games but I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s only when you watch it back that you see the details properly.

And, while we won 2-1 and there were great celebrations in the stands, we knew it wasn’t over and that we would have to ride our luck and perform well in the return at the Nou Camp.

I really am so proud to tell my kids I went up against Messi, he’s unreal.

Jack Wilshere

We probably played better there as a team than in the first game and had to soak up a lot of pressure.

But the first goal by Messi that night was just ridiculous. I thought he got a fluky ricochet and that he didn’t actually know what was happening.

We were cursing afterwards at how lucky he was. Then we saw it again on TV and how Messi controlled the ball with the outside of his boot, flicked it up over our keeper Manuel Almunia, and slammed it into the net.

We equalised through Sergio Busquets’ own goal, but had Robin van Persie sent off for a second yellow card when he had a shot after the ref blew his whistle — which he didn’t hear in the deafening stadium.

They were ruthless with the one-man advantage. Xavi scored and then Messi finished us off with one of the coolest penalties you’ll ever see.

Messi is 35 now and if he wanted to keep playing for a few more years and his body held up, I could honestly imagine him being an outstanding deep-lying midfielder, dominating from there and building attacks. I’d love to see him try it.

Now a word for my mate Emi Martinez, who has had no small part in getting Argentina to the final.

His is some story, having struggled to break through at Arsenal and ending up going on loan to the likes of Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham.

He joined us at 17 and one of the things which stood out was his professionalism — he adapted straight away and quickly settled in.

This was a young lad in a foreign land and he didn’t care where he went on loan. He just wanted to be a footballer and to eventually play in goal for Arsenal.

Emi’s a top guy and got all the banter. He was almost more English than English.

When he talks, you wouldn’t guess he was from abroad.
You were always happy when Emi was on your team in training. He could pull off unbelievable saves.

He was a bit unfortunate in that Wojciech Szczesny was a youngster who was already established in goal when he arrived and then a top keeper like Petr Cech became available, so we signed him.

Emi was with us for eight years and I was so pleased for him that he got to play in the FA Cup final and won it before he moved on to Aston Villa.

‘I really, really want Messi to win the World Cup’

His emotional reaction at full-time said so much about his journey to get there.

But if you had told me back in 2012 that he would play in a World Cup final in Messi’s final game in the competition, I’d have laughed.

That’s not because Emi wasn’t good enough, it’s just an amazing tale for him to be on the pitch with Messi — for what could be one of the greatest football stories.

I really, really want Messi to win the World Cup, he deserves it. It would be such a nice story, his destiny.

But, of course, I’m friends with the French striker Olivier Giroud too, from our time together at Arsenal.

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I suppose Argentina winning 4-3 and Olivier scoring a hat-trick would be the best outcome for me.

Anyway, Olivier’s won it before, Messi hasn’t and it is time he did.

Olivier Giroud won the World Cup in 2018

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Olivier Giroud won the World Cup in 2018Credit: The Mega Agency





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