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May 21, 2009

Evra ready for Messi meeting

Reduce the Champions League final to a battle of its two premier talents and it becomes Lionel Messi against Cristiano Ronaldo. The equation, of course, is more complicated, but the decisive duel may involve Messi. The question of how to halt the Argentine has been posed regularly in a season that has brought 41 goals for club and country.

Yet one man is qualified to answer it, and he is Messi's immediate opponent in Rome on Wednesday. Patrice Evra helped nullify Barcelona's diminutive dribbler in 2008's semi-final. His task is exactly the same next week.

"Last year was last year," said the French full-back. "Now it is a new year but after the game I was very proud of myself. I did my job very well and Ji-sung Park helped me a lot." Although Evra can rely on the assistance of either the Korean or Wayne Rooney, his job may be harder as Messi has become more prolific in the intervening period.

"I don't know if he is a better player, but he scores more goals," said former Monaco defender Evra. "He has more responsibility for Barcelona. He is just one of the best players in the world and I respect him."

Jinking infield from a starting position on the right, Messi's close control and sublime skill, allied with Barcelona's slick passing game, has made him difficult to combat. Left-backs across La Liga may beg to differ but Evra insisted: "You don't have to prepare anything different. Training against players like Rooney, like Ronaldo, like Carlos Tevez, like Dimitar Berbatov, I know what you have to do against a big player. When you play against a player like Messi you can stop him 10 times but if he passes you once and scores, people say: 'Evra has played a poor game against Messi'. This is why I need to be focused for 90 minutes of the game."

One blemish on Messi's otherwise glittering CV has been his failure to score against English opposition. Chelsea's tactic in the semi-final entailed a dedication to their defensive duties. Evra, however, has another formula. "I need to attack," said the 28-year-old. "I need to play my game, to enjoy my game."

While Messi has a strong case to assume Ronaldo's mantle as the world's best footballer, Evra approaches the reunion with the Argentine confident he is the outstanding player in his position and buoyed by his semi-final performances.

Theo Walcott was identified as Arsenal's potential match-winner. Instead, he ranked among the quieter Gunners over the two ties, providing Evra with redemption after a harrowing afternoon against another speedy English right winger, Aaron Lennon, in the Carling Cup final.

"I played one poor game in Carling Cup and people started to say 'oh, he is not the same'," added Evra. "I play for Manchester United, but I was happy with the criticism. It makes me believe I am the best left-back in the world. Because when you have only one bad game and people criticise, it makes you proud."

Twice a member of the PFA team of the year, Evra believes his peers' approval cements his status ahead of Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, Philipp Lahm and Yuri Zhirkov among the leading left-backs in the modern game. "I improve every year," he said. "I respect every player but I say I am just a little bit better."

Withdrawn after 45 minutes of his United debut - a derby defeat to Manchester City in 2006 - Evra's standing has grown since then. "I just wanted to show that it was not a wrong decision to buy me from Monaco," he said.

It certainly wasn't, but his has been an unusual road to Rome. Born in Senegal and brought up in France, his professional career began in Italy, at the now defunct Sicilian Serie C club, Marsala.

"I remember when I got my first tracksuit, I was looking in the mirror and I was so happy. It was just a privilege for me," said Evra, who was a striker then. If, more than a decade later, that remains a highlight of his career, one disappointment stands out.

Following an alleged clash with Chelsea's groundstaff in April 2008, Evra was belatedly handed a four-match ban for improper conduct. The defender had no soon returned than he was promptly injured, leading him to say: "I lost 10 games. It was an injustice. It still hurts me."

It served as a reminder that a reputation can be damaged within the space of a few seconds. He explained: "It's not easy because you can be the best left-back in the world and if you don't play well in the final, people say you're the worst left-back in the world. And I play against Lionel Messi. It isn't easy."

That's an understatement. But if Evra can stop Messi again, Manchester United's No.3, rather than Ronaldo, could prove the key to retaining the Champions League.

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