BARCELONA - FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and runner-up Lionel Messi need to reverse a surprising trend if either is to propel his side to victory in the Champions League final. Manchester United winger Ronaldo, top scorer in last year's competition with eight goals, has not scored in his six matches against Spanish opposition and missed an early penalty at the Nou Camp in last year's semi-final first leg against Barcelona. Barca forward Messi is this year's leading marksman so far with eight, twice as many as Ronaldo, but has failed to find the net in any of his 10 matches against English clubs, including in the two-legged semi-final against Chelsea. "Of course the English teams are very tough to play against," the 21-year-old Argentine told a news conference at the Nou Camp on Thursday. "But I don't think this final is going to be like any other match." Messi paid tribute to his Portuguese rival's abilities: "He is a great player with the knack of throwing the other team off balance and if you give him space he'll exploit it perfectly." Ronaldo, 24, who is also the European Footballer of the Year, said in an interview with Spanish television on Thursday it was dangerous to focus too much on Messi and noted that Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o and France captain Thierry Henry had also been in superb form this season. "Of course Messi is very good but the others are too," he told Antena 3. "If I was just playing on my own I would not have a chance of winning the match and neither would Messi. The key to the match will be who makes the fewest mistakes." DARTING INSIDE Barca coach Pep Guardiola has mostly deployed Messi on the right wing this season, the skilful Argentine darting inside and linking with Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Eto'o and Henry, as well as right back Daniel Alves, who is suspended for the final. United's French left back Patrice Evra will likely be called on to neutralise the threat on Wednesday. Ronaldo tends to roam much more widely over the pitch and Barca centre back Gerard Pique, who spent several seasons at United, is being touted in the Spanish media as the "anti-Cristiano". After a slow start to the season after he recovered from surgery, the Portuguese began to score regularly again as United closed in on the Premier League title. His goal in the second leg of the quarter-final against Porto and the two he scored against Arsenal in the semi-finals were among the best of the season in the competition. "Clearly he (Ronaldo) is one of the top players in the world right now," the 22-year-old Pique told Catalan radio on Friday. "He has great ability to take on defenders and however much you know him he can always surprise you." "He's a good lad," replied a smiling Ronaldo on Antena 3. "He knows me a bit, not much, and that's why I'll try to trick him." Asked about Evra on Thursday, Messi said only that he was "a great player". Evra said Messi was stronger and more mature than last year when the pair faced each other in the semi-finals. "I am sure he'll make it harder for me this time," he was quoted as saying in Spanish sports daily Marca. "You have to stay focused for the whole match to stop him and if you relax for just a moment he can score." United manager Alex Ferguson, whose brother Martin has been in Spain for the last few weeks gathering intelligence, said Evra's form would be key and the experience of facing Messi in last year's semi-finals would help. "We have to plan against a lot of things," he said at a news conference. "Patrice is a fantastic footballer, so quick. You need that against Messi because he's so quick himself. "There were occasions last year in the game at Old Trafford when there was nothing we could do when he attacks players." Messi would be the first Argentine top scorer in Europe's leading club competition since Alfredo di Stefano netted 10 for Real Madrid in the 1957-58 season. He has more assists than Ronaldo in this edition and with five is only one behind joint leaders Xavi and Franck Ribery. Ronaldo is down the list with two. The Portuguese has had 53 shots, with 32 on target, while Messi has had 24 with 11 on target. Whichever of the two manages to inspire their side to victory on Wednesday will probably be celebrating the 2009 World Player award at the next glittering FIFA ceremony.
25 May 2009
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