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May 24, 2009

Magical Messi ready to make his mark

As the final seconds of injury time ticked by at Stamford Bridge, Barcelona and Lionel Messi looked set to be exposed once again as second rate pretenders in this era of Premier League domination.

More than 180 minutes of football had passed with the undisputed kings of Spanish football failing to pierce the watertight defence of a Chelsea team only rated as the third best in England, with Messi again failing to produce the goods when it mattered most.

It needed Andres Iniesta's dramatic last gasp goal to shatter Chelsea hearts and end the Premier League take-over of Europe's ultimate competition, yet Barcelona now have to overcome the biggest beast of them all if they are to claim the prize that turns merely great players into legends.

Messi is a classic example of a footballer who is universally respected, yet constantly haunted by the fact that his sublime talents have not been given the gloss a Champions League winners medal provides.

Having missed out on the 2006 Final triumph against Arsenal due to injury, Wednesday night's showpiece occasion in Rome represents his chance to confirm his status as a true great of the game, yet he accepts the challenge could not be greater against the reigning European kings.

"I didn't feel part of the celebrations three years ago and missing the game in Paris still haunts me a little," he begins. "I was like an impostor and that's why I want so much to be on the winning side in Rome.

"However, we are playing a great team here. United have so many great players and the style of football they promote is so exciting. They are at their best playing at high-speed, but I've also noticed they have much patience too.

"If they cannot spring straight into attack quickly, they will knock the ball around, retreat even, and wait for the right moment to push on. Defensively I don't see any weaknesses, so we know we will not get through with an ordinary attacking performance."

The suggestion that United's victory over Barca in last season's semi-finals will give Alex Ferguson's side a psychological edge in Rome is quickly dismissed by Messi, who is in bullish mood ahead of the biggest game in his career.

"If we turn up in Rome and play with our usual imagination, speed and discipline, we cannot go wrong," believes Messi, who is on course to finish as top scorer in this season's Champions League.

"This is a quite different Barca from the one United played a year ago as we are more sure of our ability, more unified and more confident we can withstand anything the opposition throw at us. I feel destiny will be with us if we play to our potential, but things can go wrong if we let our standards slip. If that happens, we will only have ourselves to blame.

"We had a dip in our league form during March and April, which was probably a good thing as too much praise was making us complacent. We felt we were unbeatable, but this proved not to be the case.

"Since then, we had the 6-2 win at Real Madrid as well the last-minute equaliser at Chelsea in the semi-final, so our morale is higher than ever. We might not be at full-strength in Rome but believe me, we have a long enough bench to cope."

Messi's boasts are bound to fan the flames ahead of a game that has long been billed as a battle between the star turn in the Barcelona side and the reigning World Footballer of the Year, United's Cristiano Ronaldo.

The rivalry between the two is very real as they battle it out to be recognised the greatest footballer on the planet, with Messi always reluctant to shower praise on the Portuguese star who so nearly joined Barca's rivals Real Madrid last summer.

After the Ronaldo v Messi head to head failed to catch fire in last term's Champions League semi-finals, the latter believes a similar scenario may well be played out this year as the race to land biggest prize of them all at stake takes centre stage.

"Ronaldo will be a threat to us, but he is not the only danger we face from United," states Messi. "I'd never say they are a one-man team as that would be disrespectful the other champions United have.

"Still, it is clear we have to prevent Ronaldo running the game. He has proved that he can do absolutely anything he wants to with a ball at his feet. He shoots from distance, produces wonderful free-kicks and dribbles more than anyone has the right.

"Another one we'll have to watch out for is my Argentina team-mate, Carlos Tevez. This Final is made for a player of his drive and commitment. They say a big match often goes to the team that wants it more. Well, I know Carlos wants it."

Messi's failure to score a single goal in his numerous clashes with Premier League teams down the years means he has a point to prove on Wednesday night, yet he feels ready to turn on the style in the biggest game of them all.

Often accused of failing to live up to his billing on occasions such as this, he credits Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola for unlocking his potential and extracting his most magical season yet with the Catalan giants.

"I've become more decisive in the last year and our coach has helped me achieve this," he suggests. "Whether I'm on the right-side of attack, through the middle or as a striker, Guardiola insists that I don't drop too deep.

"He wants me to damage a defence. More or less, he just lets me play, giving me the freedom to make my own choice as to when I should dribble, play the one-two or look for the through ball.

"Our coach is a Barca man through and through, someone who spent most of his career here and won every possible honour. This club is in his blood and he has made sure we respect the shirt in the same way.

"He's a coach who is very close to his players. Some would think he behaves like one of the pros. He will ask our opinion on certain matters, talk to us man-to-man, but at the end of the day, there's no question who the last word belongs to.

"Perhaps the most important thing of all is that he wants to play attacking football, where we try never to take a backward step. We're very energetic, we press high to regain possession and go straight for goal.

"We live or die by our own ideas and so far they are working as we already have two trophies this season. If you don't get pleasure from winning thanks to beautiful football, then you must be in the wrong business."

Legendary status can only be earned by those who shine on the biggest stage of them all and after rival in chief Ronaldo got himself on the score sheet in last season's Champions League Final, Messi knows he dare not let this date with destiny pass him by.

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