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The battle to be the world's best

It was billed as the clash of the titans; the two best players in the world facing-off in the biggest game of the year for the chance to claim the unofficial title of the world's best player.

But who emerged from the 2009 Champions League final with the victor's laurel, Barcelona's Lionel Messi or Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo?

Ronaldo, FIFA's reigning World Player of the Year and current custodian of the Ballon d'Or, started Wednesday night's game the brighter of the two stars forcing an unconvincing save out of Victor Valdes in the second minute with stinging 35-yard freekick, and tested the Barca keeper again in the eighth minute.

Having not had a hand in Samuel Eto'o's opening goal, Messi's first contribution of note was a miscue in the 11th minute when, unmarked just outside the United area, he air-kicked, squandering a chance from a well-worked training ground corner routine.

But the 21-year-old Argentine was unfazed and his attacking potency increased after the opening 15 minutes when he switched flanks with Eto'o and rotated with Thierry Henry in a central position; as a result United's defence could never settle, never relax, and never quite knew from where - or from whom - the danger would come.

United continued to fight fire with fire and Gerard Pique was left with little chance but to body-check Ronaldo in the 15th minute and take a booking as the 24-year-old Portuguese ran at him with legs flailing from menacing step-overs.

Messi, looking more threatening in a central position, countered and in the 18th minute unleashed a terrific shot which fizzed over. Two minutes later Ronaldo slipped his marker but scuffed his shot which skidded across the Barca six-yard area and wide of Valdes' left-hand post. Not long after Ronaldo then headed over from a corner - clearly unafraid of stepping-up to answer the challenge of at least trying to become a match-winner.

Despite early pressure, United failed to get the goal they needed and as Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta began to win control of the midfield battle Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1 formation in an effort to stymie Barca.

As his confidence swelled Messi began to run at the United defence, picking up the ball deep and causing panic, a point perfectly illustrated in the 27th minute when he drew a free-kick under a challenge from both Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, which left the United players on their backsides and Messi, impudently, standing with the ball at his feet.

In the 44th minute Messi showed his lightening pace with the ball, running at, and somehow beyond, three United defenders before clipping a cross-cum-shot into the box.

At the end of the first half there was little argument that although both players had looked dangerous at times neither had taken control of the game and that of the two Messi was enjoying more of the ball.

At the start of the second half after the introduction of Carlos Tevez, United reverted to their attacking 4-3-3 formation, but it was Messi not Ronaldo who started the stronger, with the Barca maestro again dropping deep from where he fed the ball to Iniesta, who won a free-kick on the edge of the United box from which Xavi hit the post.

Ronaldo, nowhere to be seen from since before the break, stepped up and caused hearts to flutter in the 55th minute when he stretched to reach a ball floated into the box; Yaya Toure's flustered clearance was weak and Park Ji-Sung nearly capitalised. Ronaldo was given offside in the 57th minute as United clipped a ball over the top to try and test the second-string Barca defence.

Then, in the 70th minute, Messi scored his first goal against English opposition to seal the European Cup for Barcelona and his superiority on the night over Ronaldo. That he stands at just 5'7" mattered not because he was unmarked when he executed the perfect header, looping the ball back across Edwin Van der Sar's goal to make it 2-0.

United responded instantly, fired by the knowledge that they were letting history slip through their fingers and in the 71st minute Ronaldo scuffed a shot that looked easier to put away than miss.

It was mature performance from Ronaldo whose only tantrum was a muted affair in the 36th minute - a mis-control and body check by Toure saw him abruptly pull-up from full pace and pull that pouty face we've all come to know and love. As United chased the game Ronaldo grafted hard by tracking back; tangling with Carles Puyol several times and even when booked for fouling the Catalan captain, he bit his tongue.

Still full of running in the 90th minute, Messi won a corner and moments later was turning John O'Shea inside out. Soon after the indefatigable forward was clobbered by Nemanja Vidic, but he picked himself and dusted himself off knowing his work was done and Barcelona were champions of Europe. With nine goals to Ronaldo's four in the Champions League this season Messi finished as the competition's top scorer and must be judged the better of the two players on the night.

Both men turned in decent, if not spectacular performances, but the game was won and lost in the midfield battle between Xavi and Carrick, not in the much-hyped battle of the superstars.

Having missed out on Barcelona's Champions League triumph in 2006 and having been beaten into second place in the official world and European player awards by Ronaldo last year, there is an undeniable sense that justice was done in the battle between the best two players in the world.

But did Messi do enough to wrest the crown from Ronaldo's head? Messi undoubtedly had the better game but Ronaldo exuded the same menace when on the ball and had Carrick not Xavi bossed the midfield it could have been a different result.

Despite being a loser in Rome, Ronaldo still has the edge, for now at least. But that could all change when the official World Player of the Year votes are counted next January.


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