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Confident Carrick has point to prove

The 2009 Champions League final turned into a celebration of the craft of passing. It was an exhibition of the merits of the simple ball, played time and again with elegant simplicity, and accompanied by a deft, intuitive movement. For a midfielder noted for his distribution, it should have been an occasion to savour. Instead, it became perhaps the most harrowing night of Michael Carrick's Manchester United career.

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If he approaches the rematch against Barcelona, two years on, with a point to prove, it is carefully camouflaged behind a languid veneer. While Sir Alex Ferguson, after defeat in Rome, described Barcelona's passing game as a carousel that left opponents dizzy, it is in Carrick's nature to treat triumph and disaster as twin imposters. His conclusion, which might not be widely shared, is that the distance between United and Barcelona in 2009 was not a yawning gulf.

"I've watched it back and I find when you watch games back, they are never as bad as you think or never as good as you think," the 29-year-old said. "And that was the case. It really wasn't as bad as everyone made out. There were times in the game when we were right in the game and we had a chance to win the game. It wasn't a total disaster."

When the two teams reconvene, 2009 will be a reference point. That was a match United entered as favourites; now, partly because of their triumph two years ago, that mantle belongs to Pep Guardiola's side. "We've got to respect the strengths Barcelona have because they are a terrific team," Carrick added. "But we are there for a reason as well and we believe we have got a very good team."

The Catalans' strengths, besides Lionel Messi's extraordinary return in front of goal, include the distribution of Xavi and Andres Iniesta; theirs, more than Messi's, is the ethos that defines Barcelona. Carrick is an admirer.

"They are top players," he said. "I watch and enjoy them just as much as anybody else when I'm watching them on the telly but when you are playing against them, you have a job. I respect them for who they are and how good they are but at the same time they are the opposition so come Saturday I have to do a job but of course I appreciate the abilities they have."

One interpretation of Carrick's five seasons at Old Trafford is that his last encounter with the purveyors of tiki-taka marked the turning point; a quietly encouraging first three years has been followed by two more frustrating seasons. Yet the Champions League is a competition that seems to suit his more measured style of play and arguably his three finest performances of the campaign have come in its knockout stages. Ferguson's decision to pair Carrick with Ryan Giggs appears a managerial masterstroke.

"In the Champions League against Chelsea and in the Schalke game and against Chelsea in the league we've played well," the Englishman added. "In the big games, it's important your big players play well and things have come together well."

Nevertheless, the pair - if indeed it is a duo, and Ferguson does not add Darren Fletcher to complete a midfield trio - have a heavy responsibility. Barcelona's fondness for keeping the ball, which they have for an average of 73percent of a Champions League game, is aided by their tactics: with Sergio Busquets joining Xavi and Iniesta in the centre of the pitch, they threaten to both outnumber and outclass United.

"They do play their own way," Carrick said. "At the same time, we can't get too bogged down about how good they are and worried about threats of that. We have been successful so it's not a case of worrying the life out of stopping them all the time. We need to implement our game and attack."

If that approach is pursued, it suggests Ferguson will persist with his new-look strike force of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez. An often cautious Carrick was especially willing to eulogise the Mexican. "It's incredible to settle in so quick at a club of this stature from where he came from, such a different culture and to settle in. He's set the world alight since he played. His goals obviously stand out as a contribution but he gives you a lot more than that."

Hernandez is a prime reason why United can argue they have both evolved and improved since their last meeting with Barcelona, which brought down the curtain on the careers of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford.

Personnel change, but success is a constant which leads Carrick to believe these are Europe's two top teams. "You would probably say that," he added. "We've both won the leagues and over a four- or five-year period and we've probably been the most consistent two teams within the leagues and in the Champions League as well." Barcelona's consistency is reflected in the regularity and reliability of their passing. It was something United could not disrupt two years ago; now Carrick and co have to find the stop button on the carousel.


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