LONDON - All the ingredients are in place
for a classic Champions League Final at Wembley on Saturday when
millions of fans around the world will settle down to dine on
what should be a rare footballing feast.
Barcelona, champions of Spain, seeking their second European
crown in three years after their victory over Manchester United
in 2009, and United, Premier League champions in pursuit of
their second in four having beaten Chelsea on penalties in 2008.
The coruscating passing patterns Barcelona have weaved to
reach their second final in three years have brought them
accolades from far and wide and not even the most
dyed-in-the-wool dissenters have raised much objection to their
being described as the best club team there has ever been.
Standing four-square in front of them are Manchester United,
long vying with the Spaniards for the unofficial title of the
world's most popular club and now returning to the site of their
first European Cup 43 years ago, albeit a rebuilt Wembley.
Barcelona hold the ace in the pack in the shape of Lionel
Messi, a giant of the sport to rank alongside the mighty
triumvirate of Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff and scorer
of an incredible 52 goals this season.
His second in the semi-final win over Real Madrid compares
with the best of any of those great players and, having failed
to live up to expectations at last year's World Cup, Messi is
due a performance to grace the biggest of club stages.
Surrounding him is the bulk of Spain's World Cup and
European Championship-winning team, players who have forged a
bond of telepathic understanding that enables them to mesmerise
world class opponents with the relentless speed and accuracy
with which they fizz the ball between them.
United cannot claim to match those talents but the 2008
winners and Premier League champions have their own way of
winning big matches.
The all-action, raw power of Wayne Rooney, the natural
finishing of Javier Hernandez, the midfield energy of Park
Ji-sung, the vast experience of Ryan Giggs, the granite
defending of Nemanja Vidic and the reliable goalkeeping of Edwin
van der Sar, making his final appearance before retiring at the
age of 40, combine to make a formidable unit.
They also have Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who dragged the club
back from their self-flagellating role as England's fallen
giants into their current position as a team who expect to be
challenging for, and winning, the Champions League every season.
Barcelona's fledgling but already hugely successful manager
Pep Guardiola will relish pitting his wits against Ferguson, a
man he respects and admires, but in truth his team virtually
runs itself while it is the Scot who will have to come up with
the answers on Saturday.
Ferguson's pride in the name of United will make it hard for
him to go in to the match thinking of how to stop the
opposition, but realistically that is their key task.
He knows United will get enough of the ball enough times to
create problems, especially on the break, and that he has
players of the right quality to take the chances that will come.
But in between there will be long spells of Barcelona
dominance, triangles of crisp, one-touch passing and the
constant probing of Messi.
How his players deal with that and where they allow it to
happen will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Manchester United: 1-Edwin van der Sar; 20-Fabio, 5-Rio
Ferdinand, 15-Nemanja Vidic, 3-Patrice Evra;
25-Antonio Valencia, 16-Michael Carrick, 11-Ryan Giggs, 13-Park
Ji-Sung; 10-Wayne Rooney, 14-Javier Hernandez.
Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Daniel Alves, 3-Gerard Pique,
5-Carles Puyol, 22-Eric Abidal; 16-Sergio Busquets, 6-Xavi,
8-Andres Iniesta; 17-Pedro, 10-Lionel Messi, 7-David Villa.
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