James Lawton: Barcelona's presumptions of glory set Messi on the path to a rude awakening

A combative paragon on the field, the Little Big Man has become facile off it
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The Independent Football

It is just as well so much of Lionel Messi's football has been spent in the company of the angels. Had it not been, even his most ardent admirers might now be reaching down for some cutting reproach after his astoundingly presumptuous claim that somehow the trophy at stake here in Rome tomorrow is, morally speaking at least, already locked away in the Barcelona trophy room.

It is as though Messi, the brilliantly combative paragon of the field has become facile, if not childish, off it.

No doubt we can exaggerate the significance of some pre-match comments, especially when the one in question has created such fascination beyond the banks of cameras and microphones, but nonetheless there was something sacrilegious in the musings of the Little Big Man, something indeed to offend the sounder instincts of any age of the game.

For example, it is certainly true that, if he was still around, Sir Alf Ramsey would have been a member of the Messi fan club.

The old boy loved football brilliance, especially when it was harnessed to an essentially modest and unselfish nature. But he also hated, perhaps more than anything, the sense that it was necessary only to walk out to the field to claim your dues. It meant that the World Cup-winning manager would have climbed to the peak of his eloquence in denouncing Messi's declaration that the Champions League is Barça's on the strength of the football they have already played on the road to here. He would have said, we can be quite sure: "No, it most certainly ain't."

It ain't, Ramsey would have added, for a dozen reasons, all of them to do with the heart and the psychology and the honesty which generally decide the big issues in sport.

It ain't Barcelona's for another huge factor also. It isn't, not necessarily anyhow, because the name of the team in the opposite column happens to be Manchester United.

Barcelona, if they like, can spend the time between now and tomorrow's kick-off listing their virtues and, yes, we have to agree, it is a formidable chore. It would carry them from one piece of virtuosity to another. But it would also be futile and maybe critically self-deluding.

It is true, of course, that Messi's achievements alone this season would put an ace cataloguer on double time. The most colourful reading on my mobile phone's message directory these last few months, by some distance, has been the rhapsodic accounts by a Spanish-based colleague of the little Argentine's enchanted season. "He had to be seen to be believed," said one.

We saw the ferocious drive of Xavi Hernandez on Spain's behalf in the European Championship last summer. We saw the exquisite cutting edge of Andres Iniesta then, too, and also when he delivered the coup de grâce to Chelsea's reeling head at Stamford Bridge the other day.

But however long Barça spend in front of the mirror, or the video machine, at some point they have to turn away and confront the realities of ultimate competition.

They did that at Stamford Bridge a few weeks ago with such faltering confidence that Iniesta's rescue was made possible only by refereeing of monumental incompetence. Just 24 hours earlier, of course, United had not just beaten Arsenal but eviscerated them.

Sooner or later Barcelona will indeed have to confront the challenge of the moment rather than the glories of their recent past. In the meantime, they are dreaming if they believe that Manchester United do not have the potential to shock their system profoundly.

Indeed, if they want to look in the hard place in which they may well find themselves – rather than some of the softer picnic sites encountered on their La Liga itinerary, they would do well to take a glance at the history of United in the one final they played in the old European Cup and the two in the Champions League. It is not only that United have a 100 per cent record at the peak of European football, it is the tradition that has been established across the 41 years that stretch from a humid night at Wembley in 1968 to the one that awaits them here.

United have three wins and no defeats at this level, but if the statistic is impressive it is only a statistic. Behind it lies an extraordinary commitment that has always expressed a sense of destiny which those of us who have seen them in their three appearances, starting with the 4-1 victory over Benfica on that clammy night in London when Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand dehydrated themselves to the point where, hours after the game, they couldn't trust themselves to walk across a room without falling down, are entitled to believe has at least a hint of the supernatural.

Barcelona, with two wins, over Sampdoria in 1992 and an Arsenal reduced to 10 men in the Stade de France in 2006, and three defeats, cannot begin to draw on the gift of such powerful history. They lost to Benfica in 1961, were beaten on penalties after being suffocated by Steaua Bucharest in 1986, and were pulverised 4-0 by Milan in 1994.

Perhaps when we look at this record of a proud club – indeed, Barça claim to be more than a football club but the embodiment of the unfulfilled dreams of rebellious Catalunya – Messi's anxiety to claim a victory unconditioned by the edge of battle makes a degree more sense.

United certainly can feel strength from chains of memory made of iron.

In 1968 the collective heart of Wembley stopped when the great Eusebio, for once, shook himself free of Nobby Stiles and bore down on the big Cockney goalie, Alex Stepney. Eusebio blasted his shot and Stepney, miraculously it seemed, not only stopped the shot but held it. Stiles, much to Stepney's relief, fought back the urge to kiss him full on the lips. Benfica were destroyed in extra time – 10 years after Munich.

That was laden with historical significance in the most poignant way and what happened beside the banks of the Moscow River last spring was tumultuous in all it said about United's determination to build on the achievements of the Busby era. Chelsea displayed immense strength and power in the hometown of their owner, but on balance it could not be said the heartbreak which came to John Terry when he missed his shoot-out penalty in any way detracted from the merit of United's third victory. They came to play the superior football but their resolution was never in question.

But then if you are Lionel Messi and prepared, for at least a moment or two, to balance the brilliance of your own performances against the known steel and psychology of your opponents, the most disturbing evidence surely resides, unforgettably, at your own back door.

It was in the Nou Camp in 1999 where United made the ultimate statement about the nature – and the driving force – of their football club.

Sir Alex Ferguson thanks no one for saying it but his team, denied the services of the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, were substantially outplayed by Bayern Munich. But they were never beaten. They played with an extraordinary honesty and, if Ferguson has become a warrior on all fronts of ever-increasing assurance, if his eye for the jugular has become that of a practised assassin, in some minds at least there will never be any doubt about his greatest achievement in Barcelona – and perhaps at any point in his career.

It was in the imposition of that honesty which radiated through all of football when, in stoppage time, United required the officials of Uefa to change the colour of the ribbons decorating the greatest trophy in club football.

United shouldn't have won in Barcelona but they did it with a force of will that was proved unbreakable. They simply refused to stop playing, to stop believing and when Ferguson made his mad dance along the touchline, he was celebrating something rather different to the glory that Messi believes he and his team have already deposited in the bank of football memory.

Ferguson was skipping along in the freshly confirmed belief that in football there is only one safe assumption. It is not about the elusive tides of form and inspiration. It is about the strength of your competitive heart. One way or another, we can be sure that Lionel Messi will know a lot more about this tomorrow night.