ROME, May 22 – When Barcelona take on Manchester United in the Champions League final here on Wednesday and attempt to dethrone the champions, a similar individual battle will be fought on the pitch between the world's two best players.Than can be few doubts this season that the continent’s, and indeed the world’s best two teams have reached the final to produce what looks on paper, at least, to be the most mouth-watering final in years.
And as an added bonus the two players widly regarded as the greatest talents currently on show in world football will stand opposite each other.
United’s Cristiano Ronaldo is officially top dog having won both the world player of the year crown and the Ballon d’Or in 2008, benefiting no doubt from his team’s sensational run to Champions League, Premier League and Club World Cup glory.
But many people claimed that Barca’s Lionel Messi, the left-footed Argentina wizard, was in fact the better of the two and had the Spaniards reached the final instead of losing to United in the semis of last season’s competition, it would have been he and not Ronaldo crowned number one.
In that two-legged semi-final last year Messi certainly stole Ronaldo’s thunder, proving the more dangerous of the pair with United progressing due to their greater steel and Paul Scholes’s wonder strike rather than anything Ronaldo did.
If Messi had in any way felt bitter at having missed out on the top player accolades, he now has the perfect opportunity to make ammends, for if he were to outshine Ronaldo in club football’s showpiece match, few would deny him the titles this time around.
But to outdo the Portugal winger, he would do well to bear in mind Ronaldo’s own contribution to the Moscow final a year ago when he rose highest to meet a Wes Brown cross and score the opening goal, whilst also initially terrorising makeshift Chelsea right-back Michael Essien.
One person who is sure that Ronaldo is the best is United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who says the Portuguese’s attention to detail is what really makes him stand out.
"There are some players, such as Kaka, Messi and Ronaldo who are innately gifted," said the 67-year-old Scot.
"But this is not enough, and there is a practice element which becomes very important.
"If you watch Cristiano Ronaldo, he practises after every squad training session, and quite a few others do the same.
"As a coach, we dedicate parts of the training to improving touch, movement, passing and speed of play, but the special quality, the detail, depends on the player being willing to sacrifice himself after training – this is a hallmark of the great players.
"If the big talents only rely on their natural ability, they won’t have that extra edge. They must do something extra on their own."
Messi himself recognises the importance of Ronaldo to United and that for him to shine, his team-mates will have to stop his opposite number.
"They’re a great team, Manchester. If you go through the whole squad, you’d be hard pushed to know which player to choose if you had to pick just one," he told Champions magazine.
"But clearly you have to start with Cristiano, a great forward who can gambetea (dribble well) with speed and ease.
"And he has a great medium-range shot. We’re conscious that in Rome we can’t give him time to think or get a shot in from distance. He’s a great footballer."
Having such gifted players on show demonstrates the quality of Champions League football, according to Ferguson.
"There are many good games at the World Cup, but in general the quality in the big UEFA Champions League games is, in my view, higher," he said.
"I think that, overall, the UEFA Champions League is hard to beat when it comes to consistency, quality and drama.
"The World Cup, of course, is every four years, and big changes always take place with the departure of many players and coaches and continuity then suffers."
There is no doubt that the ingenuity, power and creativity of the forwards will certainly have a large bearing on the outcome of the game and the final destination of the cup, but the two defences will be equally influential.
In fact, they could be the more decisive aspects, particularly given that Barca will definitely be without two of their first choice defenders as right-back Dani Alves and left-back Eric Abidal are both suspended.
For a team that traditionally garners extra impetus in its attack from marauding full-backs, the loss of those two could be a crucial blow.
With a less potent attack, Barca may find it harder to dominate possession as they so often do meaning that their own re-shuffled backline will come under more pressure than usual.
However, United themselves have a serious worry over Rio Ferdinand, one half of the rock-like defensive partnership he enjoys with Nemanja Vidic.
Without him, United would be forced to play the inexperienced Jonny Evans at centre-back and just how he then copes with Messi could shape the entire outcome of the match.