IT wouldn't be a surprise to find out that for weeks now, from the moment Lionel Messi glided between the helpless ranks of white, slalomed beyond the outstretched limbs and tucked past Iker Casillas with icy precision, the Manchester United dressing room have avoided much talk of the Champions League Final.

If we're to believe the party line from Sir Alex Ferguson it's that there were other exigent matters to deal with beforehand – the last push over the golden line for the Premiership title would be no easy feat and United still had to sign off against Schalke at home.

Those are sound, logical and practical reasons to minimise chatter about who their opposition would inevitably be. If 90 per cent of football is all in the mind, distraction could derail even the most dedicated of players and with the bright lights down Wembley Way shining brighter than ever before, it wasn't only a logical statement of intent from Ferguson but clear advice to a side who spent months carrying the very definition of “wrong attitude” in Wayne Rooney.

It's unlikely he found much in the way of opposition. Torn apart on a spring night in Rome two years ago, a United side bereft of arguably their greatest ever player will face the same ruthless devil again – but stronger, more experienced and with their sorcery burning through new records, peaks and plaudits evening after evening.

Perhaps the greatest team of all time, Barcelona 2011 are pulsating, flowing with a confidence and belief in everything the club represents. A synergy between the roaring Catalan faithful and those chosen to play in blue and burgundy has seen the maturity of Johan Cruyff's vision, his reformation of an entire system from grassroots.

The strength of the message, the conviction, has ensured the rhetoric is followed from top to tail, providing the platform that's already breeding successors to the youthful first team squad.

At the current rate, Messi will become Barca's all-time top scorer within two years. He's netted a staggering 99 goals in his last 107 appearances, surpassed Rivaldo to lead the club in European strikes with 36 and become the only player to top the scoring charts in the Champions League three years in a row.

There can be no higher praise for the 23-year-old than to say he possesses the ability to turn football games, a team-based sport, entirely on his own. One dribble, one pass, one shot. It's all he needs and despite Johan Cruyff's insistence that comparisons with other players is “odious”, Messi is as good as anyone, past or present.

If a mere observer can make such discernible observations, it's not out-with the realms of possibility that Manchester United's players have too.

“Concentrate on yourself, forget about the opposition” is a proverb taken from the very first page of football psychology. It's a ready-made approach that's been re-issued as Barcelona's fundamental secret this week.

That's all fair and well but who could Barca possibly look up to? Can you really face the Blaugrana without even a twinkling of fear and admiration clouding your outlook? This may be a more accurate rationalising to the hush in confidence for a, normally, dauntless Manchester United squad.

They're not just unrelenting in attack, an ironfisted backline conceding just 21 goals in La Liga this season while actually scoring more on the road than they have at the Nou Camp. Not that it impresses Guardiola, who described his side as “not having a very good defence”. There's no pleasing some people.

But it's that quest for perfection which drives us on in any walk of life – the next horizon, a new vista of discovery and exploration, groundbreaking or record breaking, an implacable crusade to explore the intangible.

Guardiola's faithfulness to Cruyff's masterplan requires a hunger and desire that's as uncomfortable in practice as it is blissful in planning. Knowing how to take the road to atonement is different from the willingness to actually travel it.

How big an influence is Guardiola on Barcelona? Critical, would be the answer. While it may seem easy to guide a group of the greatest players to the well and back every weekend, there's far more to it than simply playing chaperone to a champagne circus.

Maintaining discipline and an appetite to lift, and re-lift, the same trophies year after year must involve something special and a leader that knows exactly how to set the mind right of individual in his team.

Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken a lot about learned lessons this week. While he was quick to acknowledge the superiority and class with which Barcelona exposed and executed the Old Trafford men two years ago, he's long clung to a belief that avoidable mistakes were made that night which ruined any chances of victory very early on.

With age, experience and more focus, Manchester United would have beaten Barcelona, goes the thinking.

He has a point – United were on top for the opening 10 minutes, a last-gasp Carles Puyol interception denying Ji Sung Park a shock opener, a Ronaldo drive just inches from the right side of a post, the momentum clearly in their favour.

United roared into that game, full of hope and belief. But it was too fragile a clutch and when Samuel Eto'o eeked out the opener, there was a visible droop from those in white.

The fact Messi leapt between two towering centre-halves to nod the second was a clear sign it was never going to be their night.

But the harsh truth of the matter is that Barcelona are a stronger team than they were two years ago while Manchester United are weaker.

Ferguson doesn't believe in sitting back, he'll want to win but that plays straight into the hands of their opponents – a true gift. It's not absurd to have faith in a surprise tonight but United will have to play without fear.


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