In a wide-ranging interview, Javier Mascherano discusses the impact of Luis Enrique, his highlight of the campaign and the renewal of his Carlos Tévez rivalry.
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Already with one UEFA Champions League medal to his name, FC Barcelona's Javier Mascherano is out to lift the trophy for a second time. During an in-depth interview with UEFA.com he discusses the impact of Luis Enrique, the wonders of Lionel Messi's campaign and reigniting his rivalry with close friend Carlos Tévez.
UEFA.com: Growing up in Argentina, did you follow the UEFA Champions League?
Javier Mascherano: I've always been a very passionate football supporter and I used to watch the Champions League. Not as many matches were shown live, but I remember my first Champions League final in 1996. Juventus v Ajax. That is the clearest memory from my childhood. The Champions League was something very distant for us.
UEFA.com: Did you have a footballing idol?
Mascherano: In terms of my nationality and everything that he represents for most of us, Maradona was an icon and role model for the whole country. In my position, I've always admired Claude Makélélé. I grew up watching him play. I was able to play against him in the final stages of his career. I have always liked his way of playing football and given my position and style, he's been a mirror to compare myself against.
UEFA.com: What is Luis Enrique like as a coach?
Mascherano: Being the Barça coach is different to being the coach at another club because you have to adapt to the philosophy of the club. At other clubs maybe you have the freedom to adapt the team to your way of thinking. Here that's not the case. Here you have to adapt to the club's philosophy. Luis spent eight years here as a player, he's coached Barcelona's reserves, he knows the philosophy and his coaching methods are very much linked to and go hand in hand with the club's philosophy.
He doesn't make any strange demands. During the season he has hammered home the idea of pressing and of trying to keep up a high level of intensity in our game, taking risks in defence, and trying to be compact.
UEFA.com: Does it make a difference that Luis Enrique has played for the club?
Mascherano: Absolutely. He has been here. He lived here, and has spent a lot of time at Barcelona. He is a Barcelona fan himself. When you play for a club that you support, a club you identify with, it is an added pressure for you, because you want to do everything right. He really knows what this club is about. Throughout the entire season, he has known how to deal with the situation and that is why we are in this position today.
UEFA.com: What has been the highlight of the run to the final?
Mascherano: In footballing terms, I would say the first half in Manchester [in the 2-1 round of 16 first leg against Manchester City FC]. It was a great first-half performance. Messi was unbelievable. I think those were among the best 45 minutes I've seen him play. He played out of his skin and we dominated Manchester City in every department.
UEFA.com: What will Juventus be like to play against?
Mascherano: They have that Italian competitive edge. It is always difficult to overcome that because they are very, very competitive. They are very tactical. They understand football and on top of that they have a lot of talent. It is not a traditional Italian team. They play like Italians but they have a lot of talent, they know how to attack and they can play in different ways. They have lots of variety and that makes them very difficult to play against.
UEFA.com: Are you excited to be coming up against Carlos Tévez again?
Mascherano: We have played against each other during Boca v River games, during Manchester United v Liverpool. We have played together as well. Our paths in the beginning were quite similar but then he went to Manchester and I went to Liverpool. Of course, he is a top player, a magnificent centre-forward and, above all, a player who likes to win. He's made for these games.
UEFA.com: Did you have to adapt when you moved to Barcelona in 2010?
Mascherano: Yes, I had to grow, to improve a lot. Before I came to Barcelona, I only thought about one facet of the game, destroying. My qualities were completely defensive and I wouldn't take responsibility for organising my team's game, our attacks. But here defenders have a commitment to generating play and creating so you have to step up and take on that commitment.
It was difficult in the first few months but I've always believed that training with great players makes you a better player and that's what has happened to me. Obviously I am never going to have the quality of Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández or Andrés Iniesta, but I can deal with situations that before I would have struggled with.
UEFA.com: Did you feel any nerves when starting in central defence in the 2011 final, a position you were unfamiliar with?
Mascherano: And Carles Puyol was on the bench! As for nerves, I didn't have time to stop and think about it. I didn't think I was going to play because I knew that Abi [Éric Abidal] was going to come back and Puyi [Puyol] was available. We arrived at Wembley, Pep [Josep Guardiola] gave his team talk and when he named the lineup I got a surprise!
Obviously I felt a huge sense of responsibility, playing in a position that wasn't my natural one and with the best centre-back in the club's history, and the captain, on the bench. But luckily it went well! It all sunk in after the game and it was amazing to be part of that experience.