Whether it be fate or mere coincidence, Wembley Stadium is set to once again shape the history of two of Europe’s biggest sides. Indeed, the arena provided the backdrop for the very first European Cup victories for both Manchester United and FC Barcelona, with the duo now preparing to battle it out this Saturday for UEFA Champions League glory.
On 29 May 1968, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Co inspired United to their first triumph in the competition then known as the European Champions Clubs' Cup, in a dramatic final versus Eusebio’s Benfica at Wembley. With the teams locked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, the Red Devils struck three times in extra time to get their hands on the coveted trophy.
Twenty-four years on and it was the Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ coached by Johan Cruyff that took the honours, finally exorcising the ghosts of two previous final defeats by sinking Sampdoria 1-0 via a free-kick strike from Ronald Koeman. In a decider also played out at Wembley, the game was hailed as a vindication of Cruyff’s Dutch ‘Total Football’ approach and which featured the likes of Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov, as well as a young Pep Guardiola.
Much has happened since those landmark moments for both clubs. By their high standards, United were enduring something of a torrid time until the arrival of the manager that has shaped the destiny of the Old Trafford outfit over the last 25 years: Sir Alex Ferguson. Under his command, the Red Devils have won 36 of the 59 titles in their trophy cabinet, with Ferguson’s magnificent haul featuring Champions League success in 1999, when Bayern Munich were stunned by two injury-time strikes, and a 2008 defeat of Chelsea on penalty kicks.
Barça too have claimed ‘the trophy with the big ears’ twice more since 1992. In 2006 goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti sealed a comeback victory against Arsenal, while in 2009 Guardiola joined a select band of players to have won the trophy as a player and coach when Los Azulgrana sank United 2-0 in Rome. That title sealed a historic treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League for Guardiola in his first season as coach, part of a stunning six trophy wins in the 2009 calendar year. Meanwhile, United’s ’99 victory featuring the likes of David Beckham and Peter Schmeichel was also part of a treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Two years on from the 2009 finale between these two sides, Guardiola and Ferguson will pit their wits against each other once more as they bid to add to their club’s tally of three European Cup/Champions League crowns. What is more, a fourth win would edge the victors that much closer to the records of their fiercest rivals: Real Madrid (9) and Liverpool (5).
On an individual note, a win for Ferguson’s charges would be his third Champions League title, while it would be a second for Guardiola and a third overall, taking into account said 1992 European Cup victory. As a result, parallels can clearly be drawn between both teams and coaches, with the Wembley factor key amongst them.
Same name, new venue
That said, the stadium that will host Saturday’s final is not the same that played host to Best and Charlton in ’68 or where Koeman’s thunderbolt found the net in ’92. The old Wembley Stadium was knocked down in 2003 and has given way to a new, more modern arena with a larger capacity.
Despite this changing of the guard, Wembley in both its guises still has a great deal of significance for everyone at both United and Los Blaugrana. Eric Abidal, who played there in a November 2010 friendly with France, had this to say: “Wembley is part of the history of Barça, and we want to write another chapter in that history.”
Just like Wembley, Barcelona and United have also managed to refresh and rejuvenate their first teams over the years without losing their sense of identity. Ferguson is undoubtedly the rock on which the club stands, with his reign surviving changes in ownership and the departure of players of the stature of Eric Cantona, Beckham, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Nor has Barça’s flowing football and intriguing blend of international superstars and home-grown players been discarded, with Cruyff’s master plan continuing to be honed and perfected by Guardiola.
The theme of continuity can be seen in the squads of both clubs. Barcelona’s Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi are all preparing for their third Champions League final with the club, as is United’s evergreen winger Ryan Giggs, a feat that would in all likelihood have been matched by team-mate Paul Scholes had he not been suspended for the ’99 showpiece.
Puyol and Giggs, idols on both sides
One of Guardiola’s motivational tools ahead of Saturday’s clash has been to suggest it may be a last opportunity for some of his older players to win another Champions League crown. And club captain Puyol has been quick to pick up his coach’s gauntlet: “We know how difficult it is to get this far and that it could be the last final for this generation of players. We want to enjoy our moment and win,” said the rugged defender.
“Those of us who’ve been here longer perhaps appreciate it more because we’ve been through lean times too, though the younger guys also know how much it means even though they’ve grown more used to winning,” added Puyol, with the benefit of 12 years of first-team experience.
The team’s leader on and off the pitch and a veritable symbol of Barcelonismo, the Spain international’s importance to Barça is reflected by Giggs at United. The versatile Welsh wide-man, who has often been deployed in a central midfield role recently, is enjoying a second youth at the age of 37 and is truly Ferguson’s right-hand man out on the pitch.
After a staggering 20 seasons in the United first team, Giggs is a living legend at Old Trafford and held in the highest of esteem by his Scottish manager. “He’s treated like a God in the dressing room,” said Sir Alex. “He’s an example to follow and a leader to his colleagues, while the younger players go to him for advice.”
But despite their years of long service, neither Giggs, Puyol or Ferguson were part of their club’s first European Cup triumphs at Wembley. So, will Guardiola’s ’92 experience give him the edge come Saturday’s all-important encounter? Or is it Sir Alex’s turn to win this battle of wills with his younger counterpart and avenge defeat in 2009?