Prepare for a coming together of giants. Barcelona against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League decider ranks alongside Brazil meeting Germany in a FIFA World Cup™ Final, promising nothing less than a clash of history and cultures. For tomorrow's contest, read the latest instalment in a long-standing rivalry between Latin flair and Anglo-Saxon power, with the bulldog spirit of Wayne Rooney and Co cast against Barça’s famous tiki-taka.
Add in two of Europe’s most successful clubs since the turn of the century, a pair of charismatic coaches, and stars desperate to shine in front of a global audience, and the stage is set for the greatest spectacle the club game has to offer, with the iconic setting of Wembley as the perfect backdrop.
The English capital will welcome two teams at the height of their abilities, with both targeting a fourth European crown having already clinched their domestic titles. The storied duo will be at full strength too, meaning both will have prepared in ideal circumstances to meet rivals they already know inside-out.
The most significant development since the Camp Nou outfit dispatched the Red Devils 2-0 in the 2009 Rome final is that Barça captain Carles Puyol and eight of his team-mates have now been crowned FIFA World Cup winners. Like Spain, the Catalan giants operate a game plan based on constant circulation of the ball, but United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will not be overly concerned. He has pored over their meetings with Arsenal and, to a lesser extent, Real Madrid, noting how both sides caused the Blaugrana problems by pressing high up the pitch to launch rapid counter-attacks. The key to victory could reside in the midfield battle, but both teams possess supremely gifted players capable of turning a match on its head with a single burst of magic.
Road to the final
United and Barcelona set off down similar paths to Wembley right from the group stage, when both topped their sections thanks to four wins and two draws. They then made a slow start to the knockout phase, with United recording a goalless stalemate away against Marseille while Barcelona lost 2-1 at Arsenal. That was as close as the duo came to harm, however, and Josep Guardiola’s men bounced back by downing Arsenal 3-1 on home soil before breezing past Shakhtar Donetsk 6-1 on aggregate and defeating old foes Real Madrid 3-1 over two legs. The Red Devils fared even better, and they will head into the decider on a run of five consecutive wins, having beaten Marseille 2-1 at Old Trafford and compiled 3-1 and 6-1 aggregate triumphs against Chelsea and Schalke respectively.
Now enjoying a more central role, Lionel Messi can transform a game like no other player, as borne out by the statistics in this year’s competition. Not only does the Argentinian forward lead the individual scoring stakes with 11 goals, he has unleashed more shots on target than anyone else (31) and suffered more fouls than any of his peers (30). The beneficiary of visionary service from his almost telepathic conspirators Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Messi is capable of the most breathtaking skills with a ball at his feet. He will nonetheless be anxious to end a jinx at Wembley, having hit the net in 19 countries but never on English soil despite eight previous visits.
In the United camp, danger can spring from a wide variety of sources – from Korea Republic midfielder Park Ji-Sung, Bulgarian marksman Dimitar Berbatov, Welsh wizard Ryan Giggs, talented Portuguese livewire Nani and, of course, the powerful and sublime England forward Wayne Rooney. For all their established performers, however, the Premier League side’s undoubted revelation of the season has been Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, the 22-year-old Mexican striker having exploded on to the scene this term.
In the dugout
Their obvious age difference notwithstanding, Josep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson have much in common, not least the passion they share for their respective teams and a pair of CVs replete with titles. The younger of the two men, Guardiola is a proud member of that select group of individuals who have won the Champions League as both player and coach. Already highly respected by his peers when he pulled the strings in Barça’s midfield, he now has the club’s exceptional current generation playing fantasy football, and has collected more silverware in three years than many revered coaches have managed throughout their entire careers. Sir Alex, meanwhile, has been the heart and soul of United for more than a quarter of a century. Closing in on his 70th birthday, the Scottish veteran remains an uncanny talent spotter and an unparalleled motivator of men, while maintaining strict discipline within his squad.
Facts and figures
Saturday’s opponents can pride themselves on having dominated the global game in the 21st century. United have amassed no fewer than seven Premier League crowns in 11 years and can also look back on one Champions League title, an FA Cup, three English League Cups, a FIFA Club World Cup triumph and four Community Shields. Barcelona’s record is no less inspiring, featuring as it does five Spanish league titles, two Champions League wins, one UEFA Super Cup, a Copa del Rey and a FIFA Club World Cup.
10 – The number of times the two sides have met. Something will have to give as both can point to three wins, their four other contests having ended in draws.
What they said
"The level of the teams right now is very close. We’re two very effective, very strong sides who can easily line up in four of five different ways, each of them competitive,” Josep Guardiola, Barcelona coach.