|Messi, left, outshone Rooney in winning the European Champions League final [GALLO/GETTY]|
There is little to choose between Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney at the moment.
Both strikers are firing their team’s charges towards domestic and European glory, both are scoring goals with astonishing inevitability and both have that crucial factor beloved of all football managers.
Their star status is purely, simply, because of their excellence on the pitch.
Manchester United’s Rooney scored twice to demolish AC Milan in the European Champions League last week, while reigning world and European footballer of the year Messi bagged a brace in defeating Stuttgart on Wednesday.
But unlike Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Milan’s David Beckham, neither have red-carpet quality nor do they have much history of nights on the town.
Messi has a face so ordinary you would barely look twice if you saw him shopping for a cardigan at Marks & Spencer while Rooney has a face that, no doubt, his wife and mother both love.
In that respect they are pure players, elevated in status only because they are geniuses of their trade.
Saturday March 20
Aston Villa v Wolves
Sunday March 21
Man Utd v Liverpool
And they could yet meet again in Europe, with Rooney out to erase memories of Barca’s 2-0 win over United in last year’s Champions League final in which Messi scored.
This weekend, both lead out their teams in matches that could go a long way to deciding the title in an exciting finish to the Spanish and English leagues – Rooney against long-time foes Liverpool, and Messi against Real Zaragoza as Barca look for their first away win in four.
United were thumped 4-1 by Liverpool at home last March and still went on to win the championship but the stakes are higher than ever now.
The leaders are just two points clear of Chelsea – who have a game in hand and no Champions League to distract them after being dumped out by Inter Milan – and fellow European quarter-finalists Arsenal.
Liverpool are out of the title race but Rafa Benitez’s side are pushing for fourth and a possible Champions League place.
They beat Portsmouth 4-1 on Monday and will turn their attention to Lille in the Europa League on Thursday.
The visitors will also be looking to complete their second double in a row over United, after winning 2-0 at Anfield in October.
Liverpool ‘anything but poor’
“It would be very dangerous to think this is a poor Liverpool side coming to Old Trafford because they will be anything but,” midfielder Darren Fletcher told the Manchester Evening News.
“They maybe haven’t had the season we expected after the one they had last year but they are still a dangerous side.
|La Liga fixtures|
Saturday March 20
Athletic Bilbao v Getafe
Sunday March 21
Malaga v Villarreal
“We know what they are capable of because they pushed us all the way and dished out that defeat here and the one at Anfield this season. They are still fresh in our memories.”
Rooney scored twice against Fulham at Old Trafford last Sunday to take his season’s tally to 32 and is on course to surpass the 42 scored by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007/2008.
Third-placed Arsenal will go top of the league for a day if they win at home to West Ham on Saturday, with Chelsea at Blackburn Rovers on Sunday.
Messi has put Barca back on track in Europe and at home with eight goals in their last four matches and coach Pep Guardiola will be hoping the spell continues in the Spanish Primera Division this weekend.
The Argentina international has led by example, and not just in terms of his 27 goals, after Barcelona appeared to lose their sparkle in defeat at Atletico Madrid and draws away to Stuttgart and Almeria over the last month.
Spirit of Barca
“The first to promote the spirit of the team is Messi himself,” Barca president Joan Laporta said after the 22-year-old’s stellar display put them in the Champions League quarter-finals.
“It would be very dangerous to think this is a poor Liverpool side coming to Old Trafford because they will be anything but”
Darren Fletcher, Man Utd midfielder
The champions return to the domestic title race on Sunday at struggling Real Zaragoza, and are looking for their first away win in four attempts in all competitions.
Real Madrid proved that their painful exit from the Champions League had only sharpened their hunger for the one remaining trophy available to them with a 4-1 hammering of Real Valladolid last weekend.
They host 12th-placed Sporting Gijon on Saturday having won all 13 league games at the Bernabeu this season.
The battle for Spain’s other two Champions League qualification slots is almost a separate competition.
Third-placed Valencia are a distant 18 points behind the leaders, and fourth-placed Sevilla 21 adrift.
Sevilla visit Espanyol on Saturday needing to lift themselves after their surprise exit from the Champions League at the hands of CSKA Moscow during the week.
Valencia host Almeria on Sunday.