Messi relishing world club mission
Barcelona star Lionel Messi has dismissed the notion that the Club World Cup in Japan is an unwanted distraction, at a time when the Spanish giants trail Real Madrid at home.
The reigning Spanish and European champions jet to the annual showpiece in the unfamiliar position of not topping La Liga, but it would be a huge shock if Barcelona didn't claim their 13th title under coach Pep Guardiola.
In Messi, Barcelona, who were Club World Cup winners in 2009, have arguably the finest player around, and the Argentine wizard insists his celebrated side are giving the tournament of continental champions due respect.
"It's great to play in a Club World Cup and it's an important tournament for us. We've got some lovely memories of the last one we played in and we can't wait to experience that again and celebrate in the same style," he said.
Glory two years ago, when Barcelona came from behind in the final to beat Argentine side Estudiantes 2-1 in extra-time, crowned an amazing year when the Catalan outfit won all six cups that were on offer.
But the side touted one of the best club teams ever are peering up at fierce rivals Real in Spain after stumbling against Getafe for a first defeat of the season last month, while their away form has also been patchy.
Despite Saturday's 5-0 hammering of Levante, Barca head into this weekend's El Clasico against Real -- their final game before the trip to Japan -- knowing defeat could deal a heavy blow to their Spanish title defence.
"We're always under the obligation to win," Messi told FIFA.com, rubbishing the notion that the favourites tag in Japan and the sheer number of games stacking up in all competitions weighed heavily.
"We know what we're capable of and how far we can go. We've got a lot of games to get through, that's true, and it's never easy to play one match after the other and maintain top form," he said.
"We really don't care what people are saying, though. We're staying cool, calm and collected."
The biggest threat to Messi and co. at the tournament should come from Copa Libertadores winners Santos, of Brazil, whose much-coveted striker Neymar will be one of the star attractions.
The other sides at the annual Club World Cup, which starts Thursday, are Tunisia's Esperance (African champions), the Qataris Al Sadd (Asia), Monterrey from Mexico (North/Central America) and Auckland City (Oceania).
They are joined by newly anointed J-League champions Kashiwa Reysol, who kick off the action when they take on Auckland's part-timers.
Barcelona and Santos enter at the semi-final stage, with the Catalans taking on the winners of the clash between Esperance and Al Sadd for a place in the December 18 final at Yokohama, near Tokyo.
Media in Brazil, where the Club World Cup is a huge event, are building the competition up as a showdown between 19-year-old Brazilian international Neymar and Messi.
Santos legend Pele is in no doubt who is superior.
"Comparing the two individually, I think Neymar is much better, more complete," he said.
"Messi is great, but he relies a lot on his team-mates. That is why he does so well for Barcelona but struggles playing for Argentina.
"Neymar plays well for Santos and for Brazil."
Meanwhile dark horses Monterrey are hoping to become the first Mexican club to taste glory.
Coach Victor Manuel Vucetich has quality at his disposal in Chile star Humberto Suazo and Argentine former Lyon midfielder Cesar Delgado.
"This is a very important step in our careers because we will be competing against some massive teams, huge clubs on the international stage. This will help us a lot," said the 56-year-old Vucetich.
Monterrey enter the competition at the quarter-final stage, where they will face either Auckland or Kashiwa. The winner takes on Santos.