London, May 26: Head-to-head comparisons of key players ahead of Saturday's Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United at Wembley:
Lionel Messi (Barcelona) vs. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)=
Messi is two years younger than Rooney but his feats easily surpass those of his fellow striker. Although Messi is just 23, FIFA has made the Argentina forward its world player of the year in each of the past two years, and commentators regularly suggest he needs only success with his country to join Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Pele as one of football's all-time greats.
While Rooney's physical power and spectacular goals have helped inspire United to four Premier League titles in five seasons, Messi has scored at the rate of two goals every three games over seven years with Barcelona and won two Champions League titles to Rooney's one.
This season neatly illustrates the difference in consistency between the players. Rooney labored through the first half after a poor World Cup performance and media allegations over his private life, but "The Flea" led the Spanish league with 19 assists and scored an incredible 52 goals from 54 games. He helped Barcelona to a third straight Spanish title and his fifth overall.
But despite the goals, neither player is an orthodox striker. Both spend long periods in deep-lying positions, picking up possession, drawing opponents and linking with teammates before surging into the space they helped create.
Messi's movement and dribbling ability will make it difficult for United's players to decide whether he should be picked up by Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic from central defense, or marked by a midfielder such as Darren Fletcher. Likewise, Rooney could cause problems for Barcelona's Carles Puyol.
Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona) vs. Michael Carrick (Manchester United)=
Xavi and Carrick perform the role of midfield prompter in very different ways.
A pivotal figure for Barcelona as well as world and European champion Spain, the 31-year-old Xavi is the more mobile of the pair. As illustrated by the cross he sent from the right channel for Messi to make it 2-0 in the 2009 final against United, he is not pinned to a central position but drifts all over the pitch -- making full use of its width.
Xavi is simply the brains of the team and his vision and ability to thread a seemingly impossible pass are arguably unmatched in world football. Much of his success stems from the seemingly telepathic relationship he has built with Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, who like him have spent their whole careers with Barcelona after progressing from the youth team.
While Xavi struck once in 28 league games this season, Carrick has been even less productive with no goals in the same number of matches.
Carrick has won four league titles with United without truly winning over fans, but any player would have struggled as a replacement for the inspirational Roy Keane. Carrick is not a snappy tackler, surging runner or frequent scorer like Keane, but instead breaks up opposition attacks with interceptions and prompts attacks from deep positions.
His long passing is especially notable, but whether he will get the chance to show that off is doubtful against a Barcelona side that enjoys about two-thirds of possession in Champions League matches.
Carles Puyol (Barcelona) vs. Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)=
First choice in the heart of defense for Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola and Spain's Vicente del Bosque, the 33-year-old Puyol has been with the Catalan club since joining at 17. Captain since 2005, the versatile Puyol has appeared at right back, left back and, most commonly, center back to help Barcelona to five titles in seven years.
Captain for two of Barcelona's three European Cup titles, the lion-maned Puyol is only 1.78 meters (5-foot-10) tall but his timing and leap make him an attacking threat with headers from corners and free kicks.
He is also a stabilizing influence on Gerard Pique alongside him, constantly yelling to the younger player to keep him alert.
Like Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, Puyol has seen the frequency of his injuries increase with age and has played only three times since January because of a knee problem. United's Javier Hernandez could trouble him with his pace if he can turn him toward his own goal.
But the United player Puyol most resembles is Vidic, who also captains his team and is commonly cited as the best central defender in England's Premier League.
The Serbia international is commanding in the air, a superb timer of tackles and a regular scorer of crucial goals from set-pieces and open play. Only five United players managed more goals than the five Vidic scored in this season's Premier League, with one coming in the high-pressure 2-1 win over Chelsea that effectively clinched the title.
While he has four red cards over the past three seasons, Vidic has been fortunate not to be punished more often for handling the ball while trying to intercept crosses into central areas. Barcelona may try to expose him by dragging him out of position.
Victor Valdes (Barcelona) vs. Edwin van der Sar (Manchester United)=
Overshadowed at national level by Real Madrid stalwart Iker Casillas, Valdes has still won the Zamora Trophy awarded in Spain to the goalkeeper who concedes the fewest goals for three straight seasons.
Barcelona's domination of possession does mean that Valdes has few shots to save but that also demands that the 29-year-old keeper maintains a high level of concentration for long periods.
Lapses in that concentration can be blamed for the occasional gaffe, but Valdes remains one of the best shot blockers in Europe. His great reflexes make him especially strong in one-on-one situations with an opposition striker.
United's Van der Sar is in many ways completely different to Valdes: Calm and unruffled where the Spaniard is volatile, commanding in the air when coming off his line, and first choice for club and country throughout his career.
The 40-year-old Dutchman is making a final appearance before ending a career that includes four league titles and a Champions League winners' medal with both Ajax and United.
UEFA's goalkeeper of the year in each of the past three years and four times overall, Van der Sar made a national record 130 appearances for the Netherlands and was still so strong that he was asked -- unsuccessfully -- to rescind his international retirement at 38. That season, he set a world record by not conceding in a league match for 1,311 minutes.
Still agile and mobile, Van der Sar has looked as commanding as ever this season and is retiring only to spend more time with his family following a serious illness suffered by his wife. AP