Reputation on line for Messi, Ronaldo
ROME: When Barcelona take on Manchester United in the Champions League final here on Wednesday and attempt to dethrone the champions, a similar individual battle will be fought on the pitch between the world's two best players.
Than can be few doubts this season that the continent's, and indeed the world's best two teams have reached the final to produce what looks on paper, at least, to be the most mouth-watering final in years. And as an added bonus the two players widly regarded as the greatest talents currently on show in world football will stand opposite each other.
United's Cristiano Ronaldo is officially top gun having won both the world player of the year crown and the Ballon d'Or in 2008, benefiting no doubt from his team's sensational run to Champions League, Premier League and Club World Cup glory.
But many people claimed that Barca's Lionel Messi, the left-footed Argentina wizard, was in fact the better of the two and had the Spaniards reached the final instead of losing to United in the semis of last season's competition, it would have been he and not Ronaldo crowned number one.
In that two-legged semi-final last year Messi certainly stole Ronaldo's thunder, proving the more dangerous of the pair with United progressing due to their greater steel and Paul Scholes's wonder strike rather than anything Ronaldo did.
If Messi had in any way felt bitter at having missed out on the top player accolades, he now has the perfect opportunity to make ammends, for if he were to outshine Ronaldo in club football's showpiece match, few would deny him the titles this time around. But to outdo the Portugal winger, he would do well to bear in mind Ronaldo's own contribution to the Moscow final a year ago when he rose highest to meet a Wes Brown cross and score the opening goal, whilst also initially terrorising makeshift Chelsea right-back Michael Essien.
One person who is sure that Ronaldo is the best is United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who says the Portuguese's attention to detail is what really makes him stand out. Messi himself recognises the importance of Ronaldo to United and that for him to shine, his team-mates will have to stop his opposite number.
There is no doubt that the ingenuity, power and creativity of the forwards will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the game and the final destination of the cup, but the two defences will be equally influential.
In fact, they could be the more decisive aspects, particularly given that Barca will definitely be without two of their first choice defenders as right-back Dani Alves and left-back Eric Abidal are both suspended. For a team that traditionally garners extra impetus in its attack from marauding full-backs, the loss of those two could be a crucial blow.
With a less potent attack, Barca may find it harder to dominate possession as they so often do meaning that their own re-shuffled backline will come under more pressure than usual. However, United themselves have a serious worry over Rio Ferdinand, one half of the rock-like defensive partnership he enjoys with Nemanja Vidic. Without him, United would be forced to play the inexperienced Jonny Evans at centre-back and just how he then copes with Messi could shape the entire outcome of the match.