Rome – A city built by great men'. So reads the inscription on the Champions League mural at the city's Fiumicino airport and there is no mistaking who is expected to be doing the construction work tonight. One side of the mural depicts Cristiano Ronaldo, swamped by the jubilant figures of Wayne Rooney and the absent Darren Fletcher, after scoring one of his 26 goals in 52 games this season. Barcelona's Lionel Messi adorns the other.
Though the collision of these two colossuses is the headline event tonight, Sir Alex Ferguson was reluctant, before emerging into the evening heat of Stadio Olimpico for an hour's training last night, to suggest which of the two forces might outweigh the other. "They're both fantastic footballers with ability and courage to attack defenders all the time," the Manchester United manager reflected. "They're different types of players but at the end of the day how do you divide them? You can't."
You cannot always predict their influence on these occasions, either. Messi's failure to score in 10 matches against English opposition is the statistic that offers most succour to United and the vagaries of predicting Ronaldo's performance are too well known for any certainties. Which Ronaldo will be on display here as Ferguson seeks to match Bob Paisley's three European Cups? The individual who dazzled and destroyed Chelsea's Michael Essien for 45 minutes in the Moscow final last May, or the player who later faded and missed the target in the penalty shoot-out? Or else the player who failed to convert a third minute penalty at the Nou Camp in last season's semi-final first leg, the low point of a "bad performance," as Ferguson remembered it last night.
The suspicion that Ronaldo bullies only weak opponents, especially within the safety of Old Trafford, and struggles against his peers still lingers. But it is one which fades with time. Sulks and complaints might have remained a part of his make-up all season but United's journey to the banks of the Tiber has been filled with reminders of Ronaldo's ability to almost defy the laws of physics.
There was the 40-yard, 64mph strike which stunned and defeated Porto in the Estadio do Drgao in the quarter-finals, the 41-yarder which stunned Arsenal in the semis, and the goal of the tournament – the seven-pass, box-to-box move at the Emirates which he ended by sweeping home the goal which confirmed United's passage to the Stadio Olimpico.
It is a place he likes. This famous old stadium, scene of Paisley's first European Cup triumph with Liverpool 22 years ago, was also the site of Ronaldo's arrival as a centre-forward on 1 April last year. United turned up for a difficult quarter-final first leg against Roma and after an indifferent first half-hour the Portuguese came flashing through the Italian side's defence to deposit a headed goal which had something of Joe Jordan about it. "A centre-forward's header. It reminds me of myself," Ferguson said at the time, though even he would have to admit that Ronaldo had long since surpassed his own goal-poaching prime at Rangers.
United's hour of training last night offered suggestions that the same formation might apply against Barcelona. Ronaldo remained in the centre as Rooney hoisted balls across to him from the right. No wonder Ronaldo raised himself from his usual cool insouciance yesterday when asked whether returning to the stadium meant something to him. "I feel very good playing here," he said. "I've played here three times and in my opinion I played well. I want to play well tomorrow."
That centre-forward's role looks particularly appropriate again on this occasion. It has the virtue of freeing him from the tracking back which he wasn't born for but which is so badly needed against a Barcelona side who pose most dangers down the flanks. Ronaldo, meanwhile, can be released for the moment of genius which, as his manager pointed out, define this kind of occasion.
Ronaldo was his usual self-regarding self when asked whether the focus on him took the pressure off their team-mates. "It's normal now [that] people speak about me but I'm 100 per cent focused on the game. I know people want to know something about me but I'm very focused. I want to score a goal, and win the game. That's it. Barcelona are a great team and we will respect them but we are a better team and we will beat them." Never mind building great cities. Time for Ronaldo to shake this one to its foundations.
Poser or powerhouse? The opponents' view
Joan Capdevila (Full-back)
"It's the way he postures when he takes a free-kick – it is OK for showbusiness but it is completely unnecessary. Messi has the same qualities but he is far more humble. You look [Ronaldo] in the eyes and you know what you are in for."
Victor Valdes (Goalkeeper)
"He has a very special and effective way of hitting the ball. He is capable of scoring a goal out of nothing, but United have more than just him."Reuse content