1. ITV Report

Ex-Man City and Barcelona winger Gai Assulin: Messi comparison put too much pressure on me

Gai Assulin up against Luka Modric for Barcelona. Photo: PA

By Will Unwin

Having to step out of Lionel Messi's shadow is not a challenge many would want to entertain and Gai Assulin has had to come to terms with the fact he suffered with comparisons to the greatest player on the planet early in his career.

As a teenager at La Masia, the youngster was tagged the 'Israeli Messi' thanks to his natural ability on the ball, as he dribbled and weaved his way through the opposition when playing for Barcelona's youth ranks.

He was a key player in Pep Guardiola's Barcelona B team, alongside Nolito and Marc Bartra, as he conjured the sort of magic that seemed to have him set for glory at the Nou Camp.

Assulin was a hot prospect at Barcelona. Credit: PA

"I am the kind of player who likes to dribble, go one-v-one and attack,” Assulin told ITV News. “I think the description wasn't good for me or anyone. When they compare you with someone who is the greatest player in history they expect so much (so) that when you go on the pitch it can be hard for you. So I don't think it's a good comparison. I think, personally, it hurt me a little bit in the first place.

“It's football, and the media like to compare players all the time. I am proud that people compared me to someone like Messi but I think to compare me every week was unfair.”

Assulin, centre, played alongside Messi and other Barcelona stars. Credit: Reuters

When Guardiola was promoted to coach the first team, many of the club's most promising kids followed, including Assulin, who featured in cup games for the Catalan giants, but throughout he struggled to meet the expectations thrown upon him by those who thought he could rival Messi.

"Maybe at the time I wish I had a few more chances to play in the first team, but it never happened and it's such a shame as I really felt I was ready to play, but that's football. Sometimes things happen and you don't know why."

Assulin spent a lot of time with the Spanish-speaking contingent at City. Credit: Reuters

When Assulin realised his dream of becoming a first team regular at Barcelona was unlikely to come true, he acknowledged the need to leave.

Manchester City jumped at the chance to sign such a player for nothing. He fitted the bill of being a young and talented footballer on an upward trajectory, much like the club itself in 2010.

Assulin played under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona B. Credit: PA

Sadly for Assulin there was a huge barrier when it came to getting into the first team. It wasn't a lack of talent nor endeavour, but manager Roberto Mancini who stifled the progression of almost all youngsters at the club.

A sign of the Italian's lack of respect for the academy was shown by him signing his two untalented sons, Andrea and Filippo, who have gone on to achieve nothing of note in their footballing careers.

Roberto Mancini's fell out with plenty of his squad. Credit: PA

"The issues were very clear - it was the manager, Mancini. He didn't give anyone a chance, he didn't care about any young players, especially me. I didn't even do the pre-season, when it was a good time to give someone a chance and see if they do well (or) if they are not doing well. But I didn't get a chance, which was frustrating. It was a shame as I always felt good when I trained with the first team, but sometimes he chose his own sons over other players and I don't think it was fair.

"It is very important for me to tell people as a lot of City (fans) don't know what happened with me at City. People always ask me why I didn't get a chance and it's obvious that the manager was the problem. I loved playing there, I loved the city and I wish I had a chance there. (City execs) Brian Marwood and Garry Cook loved me and really wanted me to stay, but Mancini didn't and that was the problem."

  • Assulin impressed with Barcelona B

Mancini’s relationship with players broke down over a time, but Assulin could see the rot set in at the training ground as he witnessed the issues first hand. As other players couldn’t maintain civil relations with their manager, Assulin knew his time was up at the Etihad, despite the fact members of the hierarchy tried to keep him in Manchester.

"I remember at training, they were arguing and fighting. I can tell you he had issues with everyone and no-one liked him there. Just look at the team now, they look like they want to play for Guardiola and are giving it their all.

Assulin train with the City first team. Credit: PA

"I didn't decide to leave City, I wanted to stay. But Mancini was going to stay as he won the league in the last minute that year. I knew if he wasn't going to stay, I would still be at City as Brian Marwood and all the club really wanted me to stay. But they told me they didn't have final say and Mancini told me he didn't want me and didn't give me a reason why I didn't play or get a chance with the first team, so I decided to come back to Spain. I had a good contract here in the second division. I didn't think about it, I just came to play.”

Assulin still has close ties to the north-west of England as his long-term partner and daughter still live in the area.

"Manchester is very special to me as my daughter and my girlfriend are there so I go to see them a lot and they come to Barcelona a lot, too. It's a very special place for me and it feels like home every time I go there.”

Assulin featured heavily for Barcelona in pre-season fixtures. Credit: PA

There have been some tough times on the pitch for Assulin since his departure from Manchester City, playing for Racing Santander, Real Mallorca and Hapoel Tel Aviv, who all suffered from financial problems during his time at the club.

But now the Israeli has moved back to where he had his football education, Barcelona, a city he knows well and loves, as he attempts to make his way back to the top.

The winger has missed a lot of football throughout his career, and the 25-year-old feels now is the time to prove his quality and the only way to do that is with regular games.

Assulin had a spell at Brighton. Credit: PA

In the summer he joined Sabadell after a disappointing spell back in his homeland. The club from the outskirts of Barcelona are currently in the Spanish third tier, but Assulin immediately knew it was the move for him when they came calling over the summer.

“I jumped at the chance to come back even though it was for less money. I am 25 now and money is not the most important thing, I just want to play and give myself the chance to play in higher leagues. I didn't think about it when I got the offer, I just came back as it was very important to come play in a country where football is more professional.

"I think the key here is to keep playing, get minutes and be competitive. I think the most important thing for me as a player is to show my skills every week, which isn't something I've done in the last year and I hope to do that this season.”

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Assulin's more relaxed now that he's impressing at Sabadell and has removed the shackles from the name Messi being associated with him. He is now just living with the pressure he puts on himself to reach the level he knows he can achieve.

“I am happy and playing games. I'm still young and I want to progress back to higher divisions. I don't want to say I regret things that I've done in the past as that's not what life's about, it's about looking forward.”

Assulin doesn't reflect on the past and what could have been. He just wants to finally be the player he always wanted to be, not what others labelled him as, and he's confident that can still be at the very top of the game he loves to play in a beautiful way.