Lionel Messi: How do Man Utd stop Barcelona star & what is it like to face him?

I only came up against Lionel Messi once,

when I came on to help Manchester United

see out our win over Barcelona in the 2008

Champions League semi-finals, but that was

enough to find out how difficult it is to stop


It looks easier when you are watching from

the bench but it is a different story when you

are out on the pitch with him. You only really

realise just how quickly he moves after he has

accelerated past you.

We managed to get the better of him that

night, but it was obviously a different story

when Barca beat us in the final in 2009 and

outclassed us completely at Wembley in



United are about to take on Barcelona for the

first time since losing that night, and how

they deal with Messi is probably even more

important this time.



His role in the Barca team has changed

slightly over the past decade, partly through

maturity but also because Xavi and Andres

Iniesta are not alongside him any more.


They always looked after the midfield, which

meant Messi could stay further forward –

whereas now he is probably more of a

playmaker in their set-up.


Of course Messi is still a brilliant goalscorer

too, but at the age of 31 it feels like he also

has more influence in setting the pace of the

game, which is something he did not do as

much of back then.


Against Tottenham in the group stage, he

literally ran everything and it was an absolute

joy to watch. It was a masterclass of passing,

assists, goalscoring and controlling the whole

tempo of the match.


That is what he will be trying to do against

United, and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

has to come up with a plan to deal with it.


It will be very difficult but we managed to

beat Barca in 2008 by sitting deep, absorbing

pressure and looking to hit them on the

break. Looking at the strengths and

weaknesses of both teams now, that could

work for United again.

I was a cog in an 11-man system, and it worked


I did not get the chance to take on Messi

when we played Barcelona in the 2009 final.

Instead, I was in the stands because I was

sent off against Arsenal in the semi-finals.


It was hugely disappointing and frustrating

because playing in that game was my dream

and it would have been a continuation of

what had been a great season for me. I was a

big part of the team and had been doing well.


My role was almost as the catalyst in the

midfield. I was the energy in there, triggering

the press and tracking runners – all the things

that were so important against that great

Barcelona side.

We were actually slight favourites going into

the game because we had beaten Barca the

year before, but we were also on a great run

as a team with that style of play, which had

worked in both legs against the Gunners.

Our manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had to find a

different solution for the final, and he

changed the team and the way we played.


He has spoken since then about how much

United missed me and, although we will

never know for sure, I believe I could have

made a difference that night, not just

individually but as part of the way the whole

team functioned. I was a cog in an 11-man

system, and it worked.


That 2009 final was probably the beginning

of Barcelona’s great run that ended in 2011,

and the final that year was different.


Barca had progressed to playing total

football under Pep Guardiola and it

culminated with almost a complete

performance against United at Wembley.


Their system worked to perfection and we

did not have a chance that night. It was one of

the greatest performances of all time.


I had to watch from the bench as they

completely played us off the park and it was

probably the first and only time in my United

career that we had to hold our hands up and

say we were well beaten.


No matter what else we had done differently

that night, I don’t think we could have

competed with Barca or changed the result.

Stay with Messi – you cannot switch off


Even when Messi is not on the ball and seems

to just be strolling around without really

being involved, he is always scanning play and

assessing the whole picture of the match.


When you see him dropping deep and playing

short balls, he is sucking people in. You see

these little passes and think Barca are not

going anywhere but he is moving the pieces,

just shifting the opposition defence slightly

and then – bang – they exploit that space.


Messi has a big part to play in that because

his range of passing means he can put the ball

where he wants. Some people just see his

dribbling and finishing, which are obviously

phenomenal, but he is an unbelievable passer

of the ball too.


He can come alive at any time, even when it

looks like he is not interested, so whoever is

asked to mark him has to stay alert at all



There is so much to look forward to in this tie,

which is a classic match-up of a dominant

possession team against a potent counter-

attacking side. It could go one way or the

other, that is the beauty of it.


But if things do go wrong for United at Old

Trafford, their comeback against PSG means

they will still have belief when they go the

Nou Camp, even if they are behind.


Everyone completely wrote them off after

the first leg in the last 16 – it was a waste of

time. Then people looked at their team for

the second leg too, with so many changes,

and gave them absolutely no chance.


But PSG did not know how to approach the

game, and they could not kill United off.


If the Barcelona tie is still in the balance with

15 minutes to go, then United will take

confidence from what happened there, and

will think they can do the same again.

Darren Fletcher was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.



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