“To stop Messi you have to have constant help from all teammates and be very focused!” Javi Lara tells 90min. “…But the most important thing is that he has an off day because otherwise there is not much you can do!”
The 34-year-old, blonde-tinted playmaker has faced many challenges in his career, playing in all four of the top tiers of Spanish football, scoring Eibar’s first-ever goal in La Liga’s Primera Division and winning the Indian Super League with Atletico Kolkata alongside the likes of Helder Postiga in 2016. However, should his team get a result on Wednesday evening, it would surely rank alongside his greatest footballing achievements.
UD Ibiza, Lara’s current club, face Barcelona on Wednesday night at their 4,500-capacity Can Misses stadium in the last 32 of the Copa del Rey, in the standout clash of the round – alongside Unionistas de Salamanca against Real Madrid.
Playing in Spain’s Segunda B (a regionalised third tier), despite being a notorious party island, Ibiza are a modest club more used to facing the B sides of Real Madrid and Atletico.
However, the revamped Copa del Rey format (which has changed pre-semi-final fixtures to one leg and seeded participants) has helped throw the club – only founded in their latest incarnation in 2015 – up against the might of 30-time Copa winners Barcelona for the first time in their history.
“It’s clear that this is a game that makes us very excited,” Lara – who is one of few on the team who has prior experience of facing off against La Liga’s very best – says.
“We are having a great season in the league and to be able to compete in the cup against a team like Barça is a special event that all the ‘Ibizentos’ [UD Ibiza fans] can enjoy.
(UD Ibiza at the beautifully located Can Misses stadium. Javi Lara top row, second left. Image credit: Paco Natera / UD Ibiza)
“I was at home when the draw for this round happened and, honestly, I was very happy. Ibiza was the first ball out and we knew we were going to get a big team. When Barça came out it was amazing for everyone.
“I think it’s a reward for all the hard work we have been doing this season. Above all, this is a humble club working quietly unnoticed for many years and to play in a game like this is the ultimate.”
Ibiza, coincidentally managed by a former Barcelona player and ex-teammate of Quique Setien, Pablo Alfaro, sit third in the Segunda Division (two points off the top) and have their eyes on promotion to Spain’s second tier next year.
Mi cara lo dice todo, nunca me cansaré de daros las gracias! Sigamos disfrutando juntos! No os podéis imaginar lo que se siente desde dentro, con el apoyo de todos vosotros ! IBIZA ES CELESTE https://t.co/tNGqx5GPOq
— Javi Lara (@JaviLara2) January 12, 2020
“We played on Sunday and we haven’t talked much yet about the game with Barça,” Lara insists. “We will start to think about it now but I think everyone knows how Barça are, how they play and our motivation will be at the maximum possible.”
However, Lara laughs off the notion of having a special training plan.
“We take it as another opponent and we will prepare by looking at their strengths and weaknesses, the same as any other team.”
Having played for as many as 15 clubs in his career, Lara is an experienced head in the squad, unfazed by the prospect of Barça’s visit – even if the match itself is so hotly anticipated that the club has had to contend with a break-in at the stadium with thieves reportedly targeting tickets for the tie.
On his advice for the younger players in the group, Lara says: “I’ll tell them to enjoy the moment.
(UD Ibiza celebrate their Copa del Rey second-round victory over Albacete. Image credit: Paco Natera / UD Ibiza)
“These games pass very quickly. We have been footballers since we were kids, living our lives on the pitch. We have to take it as just one more game so that it does not pass us by and we are able to enjoy it. In the end, 90 minutes goes by very quickly.”
Lara – who has three goals and two assists this season – admits that scoring in the game would rank right alongside his other achievements. The veteran has Copa previous and scored a peach of a free-kick against Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the last 32 back in 2012.
While heavy favourites, it won’t be a walkover for Barça. Ibiza have already caused one cup upset this season, knocking out Albacete, who play in the division above, in the previous round on penalties. Lara took and scored the second spot-kick on 11 January.
The format changes in the cup, coupled with Setien’s arrival make it more likely that Barça may bring their biggest names to Can Misses on Wednesday – head coach Alfaro has already said that he wants Messi to be involved. However, the conditions may not be what the superstars from La Liga are accustomed to.
“They are going to find an artificial grass turf that is not usual for them,” Lara notes. “But it will not be an excuse because the ball rolls well, so I hope it is a nice game.”
Nice game aside, how will the island club, famous for its parties, celebrate if they do the unthinkable and slay Goliath on Wednesday. Have the players been promised any kind of bonus or special incentive?
“We do not need it because our motivation is already the maximum possible!” Lara says.
“We all dream of a good result, our hard work has given us the opportunity to have this game and the hope of doing well…in football anything can happen!”