Football: Luis Enrique thanks 'E.T.' Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi soaking in the King's Cup final victory over Alaves with his sons and fiancee Antonella Roccuzzo. Barcelona won 3-1 in coach Luis Enrique's last game.
Lionel Messi soaking in the King's Cup final victory over Alaves with his sons and fiancee Antonella Roccuzzo. Barcelona won 3-1 in coach Luis Enrique's last game.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Coach grateful for talisman's impact as he winds down Barcelona tenure with Cup win

MADRID • Luis Enrique expressed his gratitude for being able to call upon "extra terrestrial" Lionel Messi as Barcelona coach after ending his three years at the Nou Camp with a 3-1 victory over Alaves to win the King's Cup on Saturday.

Messi scored the opening goal of Barca's third successive Cup triumph under Enrique and played a crucial role in later strikes from Neymar and Paco Alcacer that finished off the Basque minnows.

Barca, already without the suspended Luis Suarez and Sergi Roberto, were forced to make another reshuffle just 11 minutes in as Javier Mascherano was forced off with a head injury.

Yet, while Barca's depth has been much criticised this season, Andre Gomes deputised ably at right-back after replacing Mascherano and Alcacer took his chance in a rare start on the big stage in the absence of Suarez.

But once again it was Messi who inspired Barca to bounce back from the disappointment of losing their LaLiga title to Real Madrid the previous weekend.

The Argentinian became the all-time top scorer in LaLiga in his first campaign under Enrique in 2015. It ended with the club's second treble.

This season, Messi finished as the top scorer in Europe's top five leagues with 37 goals.

The pair's relationship appeared to be strained in the middle of that first season following a training ground bust-up, but there was nothing but plaudits for the player in Enrique's final news conference.

"Messi is an extra terrestrial in every sense and I'm very fortunate that I was able to enjoy the best, or one of the best, versions of him," the Spaniard said of Messi, who collected his 30th trophy with Barcelona a month before his 30th birthday.

"Without a doubt he's the No. 1 and to be that, you have to control every aspect and be very strong physically. He takes perfect care of himself, and there's still a lot more to come from Messi."

The Barcelona star has been named in Argentina's squad to take on Singapore at the National Stadium as part of Los Albicelestes' tour of the Republic and Australia.

Argentina will play South American rivals Brazil in Melbourne on June 9 before facing the Lions four days later.

Enrique is also Barca's third-most decorated coach with nine trophies. The Catalan is behind Johan Cruyff (11) and Pep Guardiola (14), who similarly ended his time in charge by lifting the King's Cup at the Vicente Calderon.

The 47-year old insisted he had no regrets over not renewing his contract after being worn down by the pressures that came with being in the Barca hot seat.

"I am the one who decided it was best to stop and it has worked out perfectly," he said.

"I understand this profession, it is of the highest demands with a daily grind.

"We would have liked to have won LaLiga again and be taking part in the Champions League final, but it wasn't to be and I think the fans are aware of the effort and the sacrifice of the players."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

•Tickets for Singapore v Argentina are priced from $40 to $188 each, with children's and senior citizens' tickets available at $25 each. More details at www.sportshubtix.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Enrique thanks 'E.T.' Messi'. Print Edition | Subscribe