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‘Messi will be inspired to emulate Maradona at Napoli’ – Zola predicts Barcelona star will shine in Champions League tie

A former Gli Azzurri superstar is expecting the six-time Ballon d’Or winner to be at his best when the Blaugrana arrive at one of Europe’s top venues

Gianfranco Zola has backed Lionel Messi to rise to the occasion of playing at Diego Maradona’s old stomping ground when Barcelona take on Napoli at Stadio San Paolo.

Barca will take in a trip to Italy on Tuesday night for the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie against the Partenopei.

The Spanish champions are favourites heading into the contest, having won their last three matches across all competitions, but Gennaro Gattuso’s side may fancy their chances of an upset after impressing in the group stages.

Napoli beat reigning European champions Liverpool at home and also earned a 1-1 draw at Anfield, ultimately qualifying for the next phase as Group E runners-up.

However, Barca progressed from a similarly difficult pool, beating Inter and Borussia Dortmund to top spot in Group F without losing a single match.

Messi’s contribution in the first half of the season was restricted due to persistent injury issues, but he is now fully fit and firing again, as evidenced by his four-goal display in the 5-0 La Liga win over Eibar on Saturday.

And Zola thinks the Argentine is capable of emulating the exploits of Napoli legend and fellow countryman Maradona at Stadio San Paolo, with the fevered atmosphere likely to provide extra motivation for the diminutive superstar.

“It will be good for Messi, I think he will like it,” the former Napoli forward told Goal.

“When Maradona was in Naples, I’m sure that he was one of those Argentines who stood in front of the television to see his idol, the best player in the world at that time. 

“So playing in a place where Maradona has done so many magical things will make him more motivated, even more inspired. 

“He will want to show Naples who Messi is.”

When asked to compare Messi and Maradona in terms of where they stand in football’s hall of fame, Zola responded: “It is very difficult. It would be unfair, too. They belong to two different times. 

“The two are extraordinary, they have taken the game to another level. In those years Maradona was unique, there were many good players around, but you could see that he was different, he played in another league compared to the rest. 

“I think that, to some extent, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are doing it today. 

“Maradona and Messi are two spectacular players with many similarities: they are Argentinian, left-footed, of short stature, they interpret football in a similar way.

“I wish that Messi wins the World Cup, as Maradona did for his country, because it would be a beautiful story.”

After their latest European outing, Barca will turn their attention to a Clasico meeting with Real Madrid at Camp Nou on Sunday, with just two points separating the two sides at the top of the Liga standings.

Napoli, meanwhile, are scheduled to face off against Torino in Serie A on Saturday, as they aim to climb back up towards the European places.

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