Magical Messi anticipates 'the game of his life'

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The Independent Online

Wildly conflicting emotions were on display in Old Trafford's modern steel and glass ticket office this week. Most of the fans who queued patiently, left gleefully clutching their prized credit-card style tickets for the 2009 Champions' League final on Wednesday in Rome. As they ignored the ticket touts outside offering £500 for their tickets (face value £65 – £176), others cursed and pleaded with the hapless Manchester United employees behind their glass screen, to no avail.

"I've supported United for over 40 years!" bellowed one desperate fan. "It doesn't matter that I haven't been to a game this season, I'm going to Rome and I deserve a ticket." One group took more desperate and criminal action, but their plans to rob the office were foiled.

The clamour for tickets was no quieter in Barcelona where the Catalans laughed off a Mancunian rumour that they had not managed to sell their 19,000 allocation for the Stadio Olimpico. Only United in world football have a higher average crowd than Barça's 72,000 this season and both clubs could have sold their allocations several times over.

I spent time in Manchester and Barcelona this week, listening to conversations over acquiring tickets and elaborate travel plans. At least the Catalans have another option – over 2,500 Barça cules will cross the Mediterranean by ship.

I've found myself in the unusual position as this is a contest between the two teams I write about. I grew up in Manchester and could hear Old Trafford's roar from my paper round. Supporting United came naturally – great-uncle Charlie Mitten was a star in Sir Matt Busby's first great side and I acquired my first season ticket for the Stretford End at 13. I've watched United play in over 45 countries.

Charlie's wanderlust meant that he stunned English football by moving to Bogota in 1950, mine took me to Barcelona in 2001. I've spent most of my time since in the Catalan capital, watching United and Barcelona around 30 times a season, writing about both, comparing and contrasting and interviewing the players.

In Manchester, the talk is of United becoming the first club since Milan to retain the European Cup. In Barcelona, there is a febrile anticipation on many levels.

Coach Pep Guardiola, 38, has been idolised since his successful days dominating Barça's midfield. The Catalan was integral to the club's first European Cup success under his master Johan Cruyff in 1992 and his Cruyff-inspired philosophy has never wavered.

Results this season have been spectacular, principally the recent 6-2 humiliation of Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. That pushed Barça towards a record league points haul and their attacking triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o haven't stopped scoring. Free from the injuries which have blighted past seasons, the peerless Messi can lay serious claim to being the world's best player.

He's scored 37 goals in all competitions so far this season– and he's not considered an out-and-out striker. Eto'o has 34, Henry 26.

Guardiola has earned the respect of all. Cerebral, handsome and sartorially elegant, one of his nicknames is "the myth" – as in just too good to be true.

That he's lauded in Spain's sport papers is no surprise. They have long surrendered to hyperbole and even the prediction from racing driver Fernando Alonso that "Barça will beat Manchester 5-1" was enough for a shrill headline, although the serious press have also got it bad for Guardiola. "He's the eternal seducer," wrote El Pais, "The triumph of passion," according to El Mundo.

Guardiola considers the game against United "the dream final". Messi, the man in which Barça invest most of their hopes, is sincere when he claims: "This is the game of my life, the most important in my career so far."

"We're very motivated," adds the diminutive Argentinian, unnecessarily. "We know it's difficult to play against the English sides in big matches, but we're expecting an open game and we're not changing the way we play."

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