Jack Wilshere still looks haunted by the memories: "Three passes – bang, bang, bang – and they are through." He is remembering Arsenal's two Champions League fixtures this season against Barcelona, which brought him a ton of pain as well as Lionel Messi's shirt.
"I swapped with Xavi and then I asked Cesc [Fábregas] to get me Messi's," Wilshere recalls. "I was a bit embarrassed to be honest. I didn't want to walk into their dressing room and ask for it." It was a potent swirl for England's best young player: pride at having twice shared a pitch with the first three home in Fifa's world player of the year award and a warm sense that his own education had just moved up a notch.
Wilshere, 19, is the English Fábregas, or even Xavi, if he can acquire the Barça playmaker's majesty as he develops in an Arsenal side built on similar principles but lacking the order and ruthlessness of Pep Guardiola's team. On the eve of this weekend's Champions League final at Wembley, Wilshere volunteered his thoughts on how Manchester United might reverse their 2-0 defeat in the 2009 final in Rome.
"I think you have to get in their faces. I have said it before, you have to really hold your shape," he says. "I think United will be really good because they have players like [Darren] Fletcher who will get after them. That's what you have to do; you have to stop the likes of Xavi, Messi and [Andrés] Iniesta. They can just kill you.
"But if you can get in their faces – and we showed it in the second half [in London] – I don't think they get tired but they seem to ease off and you really have to go for them. We beat them at home and obviously away was a different game. After we went down to 10 men we had no chance."
Those who accuse English footballers of never thinking academically about the game will be reassured to hear these opinions from Wilshere, who already talks like a future Arsenal captain. He thinks United's tenacity and togetherness will present Barcelona with more problems than Arsenal's more flimsy one-touch passing did: "United have a better chance than we had. They have players like Fletcher, Park, Valencia. They are all runners and they can stop players."
As warm-ups acts for United, Arsenal won the first leg of their last-16 tie 2-1, with second-half goals from Robin van Persie and Andrey Arshavin, after Barcelona led 1-0 at half-time through David Villa. At the Camp Nou, the Gunners were still ahead on aggregate when Van Persie was sent off on 56 minutes but lost 3-1 on the night. Arsène Wenger, their manager, attacked the "sterile domination" of Barcelona's tiki-taka style but distance has lent Wilshere a more convincing perspective.
"I'd seen them play against us the year before at the Emirates and everyone kept saying 'you have to defend or you're not going to get near them.' I thought – it can't be that bad. But for that first 20 minutes [in the first leg] I don't think I'd ever run so far in my life. We got the ball and they had three closing us down every time and just got it back. We couldn't keep the ball. In the first half they could have killed us. It could have been all over."
He also made a note of Barcelona's political skill in pressurising referees: "We saw it against Madrid and they are good at that. Like Man United they are good at getting round the referee and convincing him to be on their side. I don't think they are really divers. They are just good at getting round the referee and helping him change his decision." Pressed on Barça's talent for simulation he says: "Against us [Sergio] Busquets was the main one doing that."
Sir Alex Ferguson is unlikely to turn to Wenger's men for advice but Wilshere would start with only one striker, to pack the midfield: "We played with just Van Persie up front and I would play with just Rooney, with Valencia and Park helping when they get the chance to get forward. For most of it they will be defending. I would play Fletcher to give one more in midfield. [Michael] Carrick and [Ryan] Giggs, and then Fletcher just doing what he normally does – runs everywhere.
"A couple of days before our game we worked on our shape defensively and worked out what to do when we didn't have the ball. When we had it the idea was to keep it and when we hadn't got the ball the idea was to get around them with three men and press them quite high. They like to play it and if you can nick it in their half you've got more of a chance."
In all this Wilshere's eye was drawn mesmerically to the player whose jersey he took back to Hertfordshire: "We knew we had to stop him playing, but if you try to stop him too much there are other players who can hurt you like Iniesta and Xavi. You have to talk to each other. Messi likes to drop off and if he does you have to go with him because if you give him that time to turn and run at you he can kill you."
Messi's goal in first-half stoppage time in Catalonia was an act of sorcery. The flick over Arsenal's goalkeeper and the finish on the other side were exquisitely delicate, not that Wilshere saw it first time, such was its subtlety. "No. It wasn't until afterwards on the bus. I thought [Manuel] Almunia had flicked it up but afterwards you saw it was Messi who did it and there's probably only him who could do that, in that second to just flick it up and over him and put it in. I have Messi in my team on Fifa 11. He's the best on there as well."