Back in the 2008/09 season, now Barcelona legend Lionel Messi and Manchester United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo were beginning a ferocious rivalry. At the end of the season, they faced off against each other in the Champions League final.
Barcelona v Manchester United – The Game
Early on, Cristiano Ronaldo very nearly gave Manchester United the lead as he whipped one of his trademark free-kicks over the wall and at Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal.
The Barca keeper managed to get his body in front of a shot that had a fair amount of movement on it, but he needed Gerard Pique to bail him out as Park Ji Sung came steaming in to turn home the rebound.
Despite there being just a few minutes on the clock, that was already Ronaldo’s third shot of the game. The Portuguese superstar had come to play, and had flown out the blocks. He’d already flashed one millimetres wide of the post and struck an audacious effort from 40 yards out.
For all United’s good work in the opening exchanges, they took a severe blow when, 10 minutes in, the Cameroonian star Samuel Eto’o struck to give Barcelona the lead.
He picked the ball up on the right, he turned Nemanja Vidic inside out before squeezing an effort past the mighty Edwin Van Der Sar at his near post. In all honesty, United never really recovered from that.
The unmatched midfield pairing of Xavi and Andreas Iniesta were damn near unplayable for the rest of the game. They ruled the roost at that time, and this game was no different.
United could barely get a touch of the ball to go and attack a Barcelona defence that had been somewhat slapped together as a result of injuries and suspensions. Carlos Puyol was at right back while Yaya Toure was playing in central defence.
Xavi would eventually be named the man of the match in this one, but a couple of journalists, including the BBC’s Chief Sportswriter Phil McNulty declared they thought Andres Iniesta was the most influential player on the pitch.
While Cristiano Ronaldo ran himself into the ground, he and his United team couldn’t find a way back into the game – even with a number of formation and tactical changes. In the end, it was Lionel Messi who would have the last laugh in Rome.
The little Argentinian had himself an absolute sublime game in this Champions League final. He was a constant thorn in the side for United, popping up anywhere and everywhere, dribbling and dancing around defenders.
In the first half he came close with a long range effort and nearly set up a couple of goals too with some delightful balls into the area. In the second period, his link up play with Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry was brilliant but, despite creating plenty of chances, they just couldn’t get that second goal.
Eventually, with 20 minutes left in the match, Barcelona did get their second goal. Xavi picked the ball up 30 yards from goal on the right, looked up to see Messi had manoeuvred some space in the area and picked him out with a truly exquisite cross.
Messi rose incredibly high, making a mockery of his own miniscule frame, and delightfully nodded the ball back across Van Der Sar’s goal and into the far corner. That’s 2-0, that’s game over.
In the end, Man United couldn’t get back into the game and their attempts to repeat their achievements from the previous season went down in flames. Barcelona lifted the trophy, securing a famous win.
What came next?
This match ended up being the last one Cristiano Ronaldo would play for Manchester United as he moved to Real Madrid for a then world record £80m fee in the summer of 2009.
The two sides would face each other in the Champions League final once more just two seasons later. This time at Wembley Stadium, Lionel Messi had another incredible game and inspired Barcelona to a memorable 3-1 win.
Manchester United haven’t won the Champions League again since then, while Barcelona have picked up yet another one. They beat Juventus 3-1 in Berlin to secure their fifth Champions League trophy.
The battle between Ronaldo and Messi quite obviously raged on and, during the 2010s, Ronaldo was integral to a Real Madrid who dominated this competition. They would win it four time in five years between 2014 and 2018 – taking CR7’s Champions League winners medal total to five – one more than Messi.
The other main barometer of the quality of a player is their individual awards, the most notable among them the Ballon D’Or. Between them, Messi and Ronaldo have dominated the award since 2008, but Messi comes out on top there. The Argentinian has six, while Ronaldo has five.
Regardless of who you think is better, they’re two of the greatest footballers ever to grace this planet. Some, including me, would go as far to say that they ARE the two greatest of all time.
It’s been an honour to watch them play for the last decade and a half – and this game is one of the earliest battles we got to see between the pair. They’ve had some incredible ding-dong battles over the years wherein both of them would claim victory – but this one was undoubtedly Lionel Messi’s.