Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi pits showman against shy man, writes Paul Hayward

The Champions League final will put the contrasting physiques and demeanours of Ronaldo and Messi to their biggest test

Entering a room packed with strangers, Cristiano Ronaldo would seek to dazzle the crowd with his athleticism and his aura. Lionel Messi would dip his head and hope not to be noticed. One unexplored aspect of tomorrow's clash in Rome between the world's two best footballers is that an extrovert is battling it out with an introvert to see which is the more powerful characteristic.

Personality differences express themselves in contrasting styles. Ronaldo has grown into a gladiator: a thick-thighed, strong-chested, barrelling force who can punch holes from all areas and unleash thunderbolts from 30 yards. Messi is a drifter or a loner who hunts space in which to work. His faith in his own physical strength was doubtless undermined from an early age by the growth hormones he was compelled to take to expand from a boy to a man. His runs, therefore, are a series of complex navigations: of twists and turns and weaves designed to turn football almost into a non-contact sport.

If Ronaldo gallops into the thick of the action, Messi is always running away from human company. There is a street-fighter in him, certainly. His hunched shoulders and tightly concentrated gaze convey his determination to overcome physical barriers. But he has grown up at a club where skilful players are a protected species and where individual brilliance is venerated. So there is no mystery in his comparatively poor record against Premier League clubs (no goals from 10 games). Unlike the Manchester United man, we increasingly suspect, the firefly Messi can be stopped.

Marcel Desailly, the Champions League and World Cup winning defender, is in Rome to promote the 2009 Homeless World Cup in Milan. "It's more difficult to defend against Cristiano Ronaldo because he's more unpredictable than Messi," he says. "Messi, we know, will get the ball and use speed straight away to try to pass you on the side. On top of his dribbling, he uses his team-mates to speed his game. One-two, one-two. You saw with Chelsea, if you put pressure on him, Messi loses one aspect of his technique, his ability. That just leaves him with the speed. And with a player like [Jose] Bosingwa [the Chelsea right-back], it's very hard to take him on anyway.

"I'm not saying Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player. It's just that he can go right, go left, play a one-two with another player. You don't really know what his position is going to be. He can play behind the two strikers, on the right, or the left. There is something different in Ronaldo. I won't say extra, but different."

This analysis gets to the heart of tonight's great sub-plot to the collision of the world's two best club teams, which provides Ronaldo with a chance to win back-to-back European titles and Messi with an opportunity to assuage the disappointment of 2006, when, at 18, he was left out of the Barcelona side who defeated Arsenal in the final in Paris. "I know now that I need to enjoy this final much more than before," he says, "because there are many players who don't have the opportunity to win the Champions League."

Ronaldo is Fifa's World Player of the Year. Messi was runner-up. Ronaldo has four Champions League goals this season. Messi has eight. "It has been my best year, without doubt," says Argentina's finest product since Diego Maradona. "For the football, for the play, for the goals. And I hope to finish it with the Champions League." Behind the scaffolding of statistics, though, you see a more interesting match-up of contrasting dispositions.

Ronaldo's game is built around the ­dramatic moment, the sudden impact. His whole bearing is constructed to convey the star quality of an immaculate prancing horse. Messi, on the other hand, appears to view fame as an unfortunate offshoot of his astounding ability to carry the ball into tight spaces and bamboozle defenders with his scuttling. He could never say, as Ronaldo did this week: "I'm really a winner and therefore I'm going to want more [European titles]." From Messi comes the deep mistrust of language and talking of one who disdains engagement with his audience. "Anyone who likes football admires a player like Ronaldo," he says. "But I think it's about two great teams and it won't just depend on one player."

This is not an opinion. It is an anti-statement that says: "Leave me alone, I just want to play." Messi is 22 next month and is more physically robust, especially in his upper body, as Sir Alex Ferguson recently observed. But Chelsea's success in restricting him to intermittent effectiveness in both semi-final legs has raised a doubt that cannot be applied to Ronaldo, who can no longer be accused of drifting out of United's biggest games.

Fabio Capello, the England coach, says: "This can be the match that decides the Ballon d'Or for 2009. Messi's form has been explosive over three quarters of the season, when he has undoubtedly been the best player in the world. But in the last three months Cristiano Ronaldo has become Cristiano Ronaldo again, and he is now perhaps fitter than Messi. But in a Champions League final you can find energies that you did not think you had."

Messi is the tilting train to Ronaldo's more powerful locomotive. The United man evades capture by more conventional means – the speed and directness of his running – and relies less on circus trickery than in his early, multiple-step-over days. The likelihood is that he will be used through the centre against Barcelona. Like Thierry Henry in his Arsenal period, he may be on a career path from winger to roving centre-forward. Messi started through the middle against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but was deterred by the fog of blue shirts, and was soon chancing his hand against Ashley Cole from his usual wide position.

Desailly is amply qualified to tell United how to stop Messi in the Stadio Olimpico. "They need to double up. The midfield will have a big, big importance for that game. They need to close with two players. As soon as Messi dribbles past one player he needs to see another one right behind. Why did Bayern Munich explode against Barcelona this season? Because the midfield wasn't at the right level. They played one v one. As soon as you play one v one against Barcelona, you're finished."

Ronaldo has turned his right leg into a cannon and is now deadly from long-range and set pieces. Lacking his rival's power, Messi continues to use his feet more as wands. They present two versions of athletic brilliance and ingenuity. Study Ronaldo and it is apparent that here is a man built to excel at sport: a 24-year-old peacock whose zest on the training pitch is no convenient biographical myth. At United's HQ at Carrington last week he practised with gusto. He was demonic in his need to feel his body functioning as a beautifully destructive machine.

Messi is equally imperious, in his way, but less hyperactive and physically imposing. Football's debt to Barça is that they have found a way to enable a young player of frail constitution and diffident nature to glow just as brightly as Ronaldo. They have built a fitting stage for his art.


Paul Hayward

The GuardianTramp

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