Speaking exclusively to Goal, the former Camp Nou forward says the Argentine is the only player in the world who can win a match on his own.
Former Barcelona striker Sonny Anderson says Lionel Messi will be phenomenally difficult to replace – harder than it was for him to fill the boots of Ronaldo.
The former Brazil international arrived at Barca in 1997 as a replacement for his countryman Ronaldo, who left the club that summer to join Inter, but struggled to escape from the shadow of the future Real Madrid star.
“It’s complicated,” said Anderson told Goal of his time at Camp Nou. “For me, it was a very difficult time because when I arrived, I cost more money than Ronaldo and the fans expected from me a similar performance.
“I already said at the time, I did not come to replace Ronaldo because it was a new project and very different, but it did not work out as I expected and [then-coach Louis] Van Gaal’s system was not designed for the striker to score many goals.”
The Spanish champions are preparing to face another of Anderson’s former sides Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Messi has been left out of Ernesto Valverde’s team on a number of occasions this term, most significantly for the Copa del Rey semi-final draw against Real Madrid earlier in February, and Anderson was sympathetic with the coach’s need to rotate his star man to get the best out of him.
“Messi is 100 per cent capable of winning any game on his own and at any moment he wants, and that is why Valverde takes care of him at Barcelona,” he said.
“He wants him to be at his best. Barcelona will suffer a lot when he is not there, so I see very well that they take care of him.
“I fully understand that he was not in the starting line against Real Madrid, and that the team has the quality to play some games without Messi.
“But as a rule Valverde has to try to get the most out of him because he is the only player in the world capable of deciding a game on his own.”
Barca go into the tie against the Ligue 1 outfit as favourites to progress, but to do so they will have to find a way past a team that has already got the better of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain this season.
Lyon edged through to the last 16 after finishing second behind City in the group stage, and needed a hard-fought draw against Shakhtar Donetsk on the final matchday to ensure progression.
“The Lyon game is more difficult than it seems,” said Anderson. “Already against Manchester City and PSG, they have made good duels this season. It is a team that usually improves when playing against the strongest in Europe.
“I think with or without Messi, it will be very difficult for them. Lyon can get a good result at home but at Camp Nou it will be very difficult for them to do what Messi does.”
Anderson believes the current Barca team is far stronger than the one he played for 20 years ago, helped by improved facilities, changes in competition format and plenty of titles.
“Many things have changed since then,” he said. “Before, we only had one pitch to train on, but today they have a fantastic sports city. It has changed for the better, fortunately, although at that time the players had much more tranquility to go for a walk and there was less pressure than now.
“We didn’t use to go through the Champions League rounds. Sometimes it was difficult to qualify.
“Now they have won many titles, whereas before they had certain historical urgencies that they no longer have.
“Today, Barcelona’s best 11 are the best 11 in the world in their posts. We were very good but not the best.”