The European club season comes to a close Saturday with the Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona in London. Two teams will contest the continent's biggest prize and two players will be in focus.
Barca's Messi aims to get under the skin of United's Rooney
Twenty-two players will take to the Wembley pitch on Saturday but many of the estimated 140 million pairs of eyes watching the end of season spectacular will no doubt be drawn to the two talismanic stars of the English football champions and their Spanish counterparts: Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
That the 23-year old Messi, who Barca (Barcelona) fans refer to lovingly as 'la pulga atomica' – the atomic flea, stands out as the pivotal player in a squad full of World Cup-winning Spaniards is no longer a topic of discussion. For those who have seen an almost mute 13-year old from Rosario, Argentina rise through the ranks at Barcelona's La Masia Academy to become the youngest player to win the Ballon d'Or twice, his ascendancy is more like the fulfilling of a prophecy.
With Messi at the spearhead of a Barcelona side which has won every club competition going in the last few years, few are expecting 'la pulga atomica' to go missing on Saturday in another massive game for the Catalans and their little wizard. In fact, many believe it will be his influence which will be most felt at Wembley this weekend.
You would have expected people to have run out of ways to describe the brilliance of Messi by now. In fact, Barcelona's coach Pep Guardiola said as much when Messi hit his second hat-trick in as many league games last March: "Put in the superlatives yourselves, I'm running out." And yet, the Argentinian's genius and consistency keep challenging those in the game to come up with effusive praise for him.
Messi's upward trajectory suggests that commentators are going to have to dig deeper into the darkest, most obscure corners of the thesaurus for years to come.
Atomic flea on stratospheric trajectory
For the past three seasons, Barca's No. 10 has eclipsed his previous achievements on a year-to-year basis scoring 137 goals in 158 games. In the 2008-2009 season, at the end of which Barca beat Manchester United in Rome to lift the Champions League trophy, he scored 38 goals in 51 games. The following season, Messi hit 47 in 53. This season – so far – he's scored 52 in 54 games. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess.
Leo Messi's worth is not only calculated in goals but also in the chances he makes for his teammates
But goals are not the only currency Messi deals in. His close control at high speed, his precision of passing and his vision have provided his teammates with 24 assists this season. Messi's tireless running, his desire for the ball and his seemingly inhuman ability to create space still manages to win games for Barcelona even when his name is not on the score sheet. The tactics that have proved most effective in nullifying his goal threat – man-marking him and closing down his space and time on the ball – often fail to suppress his talent of releasing others.
Even brutality fails to dent Messi's game. Since missing three months of the 2006-2007 season with a broken leg, Messi has barely been absent through serious injury. Considering the treatment he gets on the field, this is quite remarkable. His temperament also allows him to keep racking up the minutes on the pitch. Despite often being a victim of cynical fouls, Messi never reacts; he has never been sent off and has been shown only 14 yellow cards in seven years at Barca. Nothing, it seems, can keep him from playing.
Bulldog finally slips his leash
Wayne Rooney is a very different animal to the 'flea' but one which is just as important to English Premiership champions Manchester United as Messi is to Barcelona.
A player who wears his heart – and often his mood - on his sleeve, Rooney is a bulldog of an attacker who can enforce his will on a game through sheer physicality as well as with deft touches of skill. It's Rooney's sometimes combustible nature which makes him the player he is, both good and bad. His competitiveness and drive can sometimes rob him of his subtleties but without these attributes – as witnessed in the early part of this season – Rooney can be a pale imitation of himself.
After England's embarrassingly woeful World Cup in South Africa last summer, Rooney returned to Manchester shorn of confidence and fitness. Still carrying the effects of the ankle injury sustained against Bayern Munich in last season's Champions League quarterfinals, Rooney failed to replicate the form which saw him score 34 goals in the 2009-2010 season.
Personal problems and a run-in with United hierarchy, which almost saw him leave the club, added to the weight which he was clearly carrying on his broad shoulders every time he took to the field. Such was the horror show that the season was becoming for him that Rooney only scored his first goal for the season from open play on January 1, 2011.
Rooney endured a torrid first half of the season before returning to form in time to drive United to the title
Since then, however, Rooney has been reborn and has shown the type of form which tips the balance in the ongoing debate over whether he's a genius or just merely overrated. His recovery has been helped by his coach's decision to play him in a deeper role behind Mexican strike partner Javier Hernandez. Sir Alex Ferguson has turned Rooney into a true No. 10, giving him room to exhibit his natural movement and demonstrate his increasingly impressive repertoire of passing.
This role not only transformed Rooney at a critical time but also Manchester United's season. It was no coincidence that United's sluggish start mirrored that of their star player and that their push for a record 19th championship really began with Rooney's return to form. It can be argued that Rooney is now at the top of his game with the biggest club prize of all up for grabs – something that Barcelona will be acutely aware of.
Ferguson is unlikely to go for all-out attack against Barcelona, a team whose midfield has no equal and which can tear opponents to shreds. It is unlikely then that United will go with Rooney and Hernandez in tandem up front, which could mean a five-man midfield with Rooney as the lone striker, a role in which he has excelled in in the past. Rooney could also play in the more advanced role of that midfield quintet, connecting the defensive midfielders with Hernandez and joining attacks himself.
How to stop them
With two game-changing players such as Rooney and Messi on the pitch, the opposing coaches will have plans in place to at least try and nullify their threats.
For Pep Guardiola, charging defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets with the job of handling Rooney could starve the Englishman of the time and space he needs to bring his skills into effect. Busquets would have to be at Rooney's heel in a flash to deny Rooney the chance to create. An under-rated star of the Barca team, Busquets can be relied upon to give Rooney a torrid time. How Rooney reacts could dictate to what extent United have possession.
Messi came out on top when he met Rooney in the 2009 final
Whether Sir Alex Ferguson will give Michael Carrick a chance of revenge by putting him on Leo Messi remains to be seen. Carrick has only just recovered from the 2009 final where Messi ran rings round him and destroyed his confidence. But United will need someone on Messi all the time with a second player to double up on him when he's in possession. They will also need to cut his supply lines by pressuring Barca's creative partnership of Xavi and Andres Iniesta while keeping the midfield tight.
While both tactics may end up stifling what could be a shining example of attacking football, with players like Rooney and Messi around and with the biggest club competition there for the winning, one can only hope that genius and expression will find a way to honor the occasion.
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Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Nicole Goebel