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
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.