James Lawton: Stage is set for Ronaldo v Messi, the sparkling final Europe deserves

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The Independent Football

Out of the tears of Stamford Bridge comes the pearl of a European Cup final – a gift not just to the continent's football but all of the world game with its marvellous centrepiece of Ronaldo versus Messi, Narcissus against Little Caesar, power and beauty challenging, at its best, the most sublimely organised genius.

Lionel Messi was some way from his best this week, while Cristiano Ronaldo explained every nuance of his standing as a wonder of football, but this does nothing to check anticipation over potentially a duel of the ages.

Such euphoria will no doubt accentuate Chelsea's angst over what they consider the rankest of injustice, even, in the tortured view of Didier Drogba, outright conspiracy, but they should understand that the world moves on – and that if the hapless Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo was the agent of a plot hatched, as has been so ludicrously suggested, by Uefa president Michel Platini, he plainly attended the Guy Fawkes finishing school.

Sending off Barça's Eric Abidal at a pivotal stage of a razor-edged contest made this the night not of a jackal but a clown, and football will suffer such occasions as long as the stone-age resistance to technological assistance – and any ending of the doctrine of referee infallibility – is maintained. Meanwhile, Chelsea, whatever they say, have to suffer the reality that Roman Abramovich's largesse has bought them only a series of skirmishes with the ultimate success of mastery of Europe.

Guus Hiddink has achieved one of his classic reclamation jobs since the firing of Luiz Felipe Scolari in February, but who can say that his raw material, for all its physical power and exceptional performances from Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, could truly surpass the resources Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson and Barcelona's Josep Guardiola unfurl in the final in Rome later this month?

No, let's be very sure about the meaning of United versus Barça. It is the final that not only Platini wanted but every football lover craved. It is good for European football and for everyone who believes that the best of the game cannot be corralled into the margins of power and pressure and organisation.

That, essentially, was Jose Mourinho's game and it was the legacy of Avram Grant in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last spring. You may say that if John Terry had converted his shoot-out kick, it would have carried Chelsea to the top of the Europe. But would the Continent's game have been better enhanced by a Chelsea victory than United's triumph and the challenge they now face against the beautiful team of Barcelona? No, of course, it would not.

United's crushing of Arsenal this week was more than a masterful performance illuminated by the astonishing range of Ronaldo's gifts. It was a statement about where so much of the best of the modern game resides, and you could see on the broken face of the great idealist Arsène Wenger that he knew it as well as any of the Arsenal fans who streamed from the ground long before the end of a contemporary masterpiece.

For Ferguson, 10 years after a Champions' League triumph over Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp that was much more about the passion and the honesty he had injected into his young team than tactical wizardry, victory at the Emirates was the fruit of a long and relentlessly brilliant managerial career. He had everything right, his men, his tactics, his conception of what would be required to strip down a potentially brilliant but psychologically vulnerable Arsenal team.

Given the authority of United's performance, the untouchable weight of Ronaldo's role and the selfless contribution of Wayne Rooney, some may be surprised that Barça emerge from their hazardous night at Stamford Bridge the 8-11 favourites against United's 11-10.

What are the bookmakers saying? Only perhaps that Barça, with Thierry Henry absent and Messi hounded by rarely less than a pack of Chelsea behemoths, did survive the more formidable semi-final hurdle with fine nerve and, at the decisive moment, remarkable wit. They are saying that if United produced the perfect team performance against Arsenal, and one marked by individual efforts of the highest quality, Barça retain a dimension of brilliance, even fantasy, that may well be renewed in the sudden death of the final in Rome.

But then the odds could hardly be finer, and inevitably so. Barça's midfield is more inventive, United's defence considerably sterner and more competent, and for once it is certainly more than mere star-gazing to imagine that the keys to everything belong to Messi and Ronaldo.

If you trace their performances in their last two semi-final second legs you have to say Ronaldo now enjoys a sharp edge. When they met mano-a-mano, at Old Trafford, last season, undoubtedly Messi took the prize. Paul Scholes swept in the goal that carried his team to the final, but Messi was magnificent in his persecution of the United defence. Relatively, Ronaldo was anonymous.

This week the roles were dramatically reversed. Ronaldo went a huge step beyond Messi's effort at Old Trafford. He was a game-breaker of astonishing force against Arsenal, and while Messi never tired of the challenge at Stamford Bridge, and indeed was a player in the final act of salvation, he could not begin to match the poetry and the mystery of his sublime performance at the Bernabeu a few days earlier.

It means that, like the game itself, Messi versus Ronaldo is a contest of endless intrigue. Will Ronaldo arrive beside the Tiber with the intensity he brought to the Emirates? Or will he flounce off into his own world of professional indulgence and re-drawn horizons, which we are told ever more firmly encompass Real Madrid.

Messi, we can be sure, will give the game all of his heart and all of his talent. So at the end of an epic season there is good reason to believe the best man, and the best team, will be seen to be standing taller than ever before.

It is a sensational prospect and Platini, rather a beautiful player in his time, should not be demonised for saying so. There is, surely, no crime in wishing for the best that football can offer. In Rome, with apologies to Chelsea, it is precisely what we will have.

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