Manchester United determined to stop magical Messi in Champions League final

In a Champions League final packed with stars the brightest may be Lionel Messi. Stopping the Argentinean is something team after team have tried and failed to do, but success and failure for Manchester United may rest on neutralising Barcelona’s mercurial No 10 when the two sides meet on Saturday.

Just how Sir Alex Ferguson goes about minimising Messi’s impact is something the wily old manager has considered, even if the comments in his midweek press conference were an attempt to divert attention elsewhere. Ferguson said: “We’ve played against Barcelona three times with Messi in their team and there’s always a solution to every good player. We recognise they have many other good players, but we have good players too.” The first stage of negating Messi’s influence may be contained in those words – by stressing that Barcelona are not a one man team, Ferguson has already diffused the situation. It will take actions on the field, however, to truly cope with the 2010 FIFA Balon d’Or winner, and the identity of Manchester United’s midfield is where the struggle will be won and lost.

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If, as is rumoured, Ferguson selects Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez in attack, the make-up of the midfield is likely to be more reserved, intended to protect the defence rather than probe forward. The pair of Rooney and Hernandez also gives Ferguson an option in midfield – moving Rooney to a wide role and tucking the left-winger inside in a five-man central unit. Simply defending, however, is not an option, and nor is it in United’s make-up. The hard running of Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia may be used to counter Barca’s surges from deep but Darren Fletcher’s fitness – or lack thereof – may be most telling in the Messi conundrum.

Fletcher missed much of the Premier League run-in through illness and faces a race against time to make the Wembley fixture. The Scotland international was suspended the last time United met Barcelona in the Champions League final, in 2009, and Ferguson noted the last time the two sides met, Messi went dangerously unchecked: “…they went through with Messi running midfield, which made it very difficult for us.” An immensely successful manager such as Ferguson rarely makes the same mistake twice, and possibly having Fletcher available this time after going without the Scotland captain in Rome would at least give Ferguson a tenacious and technically competent midfielder to counteract Messi’s tendency to drop deep. Fletcher’s involvement is far from certain, however, despite the player managing a full 90 minutes against Blackpool at the weekend.

Messi is just one of Barcelona’s raft of high calibre players, many among the best in their position in the world. He is also the chief goal scorer and creator, and getting a handle on the man who more than any fires Barca to success is the key to United’s chances. Easier said than done, of course, but after letting Messi dominate in Rome, United must get it right at Wembley.

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