Head v. heart: who wins? Your head thinks logically, looking at the positives and negatives and comes up with a perfectly legitimate conclusion. Your heart, though, is different. It looks for something that will make it sing. Its conclusions might not be justified logically but, dammit, they just feel right. And that's the Champion's League Final in a nutshell: Barcelona, purveyors of beautiful football, versus Manchester United, the most efficient wrecking ball in Europe.
In the last couple of months, I've been reading a lot about beautiful football. The idea that Arsenal play beautiful football is absurd, though Holland had a reasonable facsimile on display in Euro 08 last summer. But, really, the only club truly devoted to beautiful football is Barcelona.
Barcelona has the midfielders and the strikers to make it work. And everything is driven by their number 10, the brilliant Argentine Lionel Messi. He brings a simultaneous joy and effortlessness to the game. Your heart wants to see him run down the side and break down 3 or 4 defenders before finally slotting it home. Or, perhaps, it wants to see him make that pass - the one he saw that nobody else could - for an easy goal by Samuel Eto'o or Thierry Henry.
Contrast that to Cristiano Ronaldo. The flopper. The fop. The no-show in big games. The man who always looks grim. Greg Lalas compared the Red Devils to an old Soviet Red Army parade: the weapons were awe-inspiring and nobody smiled. It's a comparison that only goes so far. The old Red Army was a sham: it was built on the illusion of strength. Manchester United, though, has actual strength. It has been flexing its muscles for the last two months.
If this were a boxing match, the hype man would be shouting Ronaldo! Messi! Stadio Olimpico! The fight of this century and the next! Their individual styles are deceptively complimentary. Ronaldo is the bulldog who can show flashes of the gazelle. Messi is the gazelle who bulldogs when he has to. They are, perhaps, the two best players in the world right now.
I am a huge fan of Messi. You all know that. He's mesmerizing. He shows up in big games. He has that sixth or seventh sense that I only remember seeing in Wayne Gretzky (and, perhaps, Mario Lemieux): the ability to see where people are going to be in a half-second. He's a leader and Barcelona's most influential player, despite Xavi and Iniesta and Henry, all great leaders in their own rights. Messi is the key to Barcelona's attack and, even if he doesn't touch the ball, he impacts how the defense reacts.
What does the Final mean, then? For Manchester United, it's a chance to seal one of the all-time great runs in Europe and England. For Barcelona, it's a chance to show that Beautiful Football works on, perhaps, the world's second biggest stage.
Messi versus Ronaldo. Manchester United versus Barcelona. This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.
Manchester United FC 3, FC Barcelona 2
Cross-posted at http://spotkicks.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/champions-league-final-a-study-in-beautiful-football/