IF United win the Champions League they’ll have overcome a series of questions.
Can they somehow stop Xavi and Andres Iniesta lording it in midfield? Can Rio Ferdinand keep tabs on David Villa? How will the Barcelona defence cope with the pace and movement of Javier Hernandez? Can Wayne Rooney finally deliver on a big stage? Have United been overestimated? Are Barcelona the great team they’re reputed to be? Can United avenge the defeat of 2009? Ultimately though their hopes will hinge on one topic: can Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United’s best player, somehow stop Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s and the world’s greatest player, from weaving his magic? To defy the odds and win a fourth European Cup United must stop Messi.
Vidic has enjoyed yet another stellar season at Old Trafford but tomorrow requires a career-best performance from the United captain.
When the two sides met in the Champions League final two years ago a rare Messi header put Barcelona into an unassailable 2-0 lead as United were put to the sword in Rome.
Two years on and Messi is now the central man with Villa to his left and Pedro to his right. In theory that makes him easier to mark. But Messi has scored 52 times this season and his goals – particularly the glorious second — in the controversial semi-final win over Real Madrid cemented his status as the best player on the planet and proved once again he is a man for the big occasion.
Yet tomorrow he faces arguably his biggest test yet against possibly the world’s toughest defender. Vidic is everything anyone could want from a player and is the main reason why United have conceded only four goals in this season’s Champions League.
Vidic is strong, courageous, competitive and tenacious and like Messi is invariably at his best on the biggest of stages. Other than Fernando Torres and Eto’o in the build-up to Barcelona’s first goal in the 2009 final it’s hard to think of many players who have exposed him.
The memory of that Eto’o goal when he turned Vidic inside out before beating Edwin van der Sar at his near post will provide an additional incentive to the Serbian but for all his class it’s hard to see him shackling Messi if the Argentine can bring his A-game to Wembley.
Vidic is a great player but time may prove Messi to be the greatest ever.
That subtle distinction could well decide the 56th European Cup final.
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