Defending European champions Manchester United will take on competition top scorers Barcelona in what is shaping up to be a dream UEFA Champions League final in Rome on 27 May. After 183 minutes of firing blanks against Chelsea, Barça booked their place courtesy of the diminutive Andres Iniesta, his excellent finish salvaging a 1-1 draw in a match Chelsea had controlled. For the second year in succession, having lost on penalties in last season's final, the Blues find themselves dumped out of the competition without having been defeated on the night.For their part, Arsenal's young bucks failed to provide United any sort of threat and lost both legs of their contest, 1-0 at Old Trafford and 3-1 at home.
Michael Essien's sumptuous left-footed volley from 20 yards looked set to send Chelsea through to the showpiece game, particularly as they continued to create the better chances. Their failure to convert those openings ultimately cost them dearly, however, as did the slight nervousness that crept into their play in the last quarter of an hour, despite their numerical advantage after Eric Abidal's red card. The Catalan outfit had the wherewithal to score from their only shot on target, in contrast, advancing not with their usual panache but with plenty of character.
Last year's winners enjoyed a far more comfortable challenge, on the other hand, demonstrating their clear superiority over Arsenal. The Gunners had retained faith in their chances after Manuel Almunia's heroics limited the deficit to one goal in the opening leg, but United's maturity and the ruthlessness of their forwards quickly made the difference. With just 11 minutes gone, the visitors had ended any lingering suspense by scoring twice, their first goal following a slip from young full-back Kieran Gibbs and the second a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick. For once, Arsenal were victims of their youthful line-up.
Road to the last four
Barcelona topped Group C with 13 points and put in some spectacular performances as they eased themselves through to the last four. Both Lyon and Bayern Munich fell victim to their mesmerising football, the former losing 5-2 at the Camp Nou and the latter 4-0 at the same venue. Chelsea's physical power and decision to press high up the pitch posed Barça an altogether stiffer problem, however, while the loss of their first-choice central defensive partnership threatened to throw them off course. Their ability to score at any time and from a multitude of sources nonetheless saw them through.
United seem to be going from strength to strength this term. After finishing first in Group E on ten points, Sir Alex Ferguson's men were forced to dig deep to progress at Inter's expense, drawing 0-0 in Italy before a nervy 2-0 home success. Held to a potentially damaging 2-2 stalemate on home soil against Porto in the quarter-finals, they then had a memorable Cristiano Ronaldo strike to thank for a 1-0 win in Portugal.
Practising an explosive brand of football based on one-touch passing triangles and a hunger to get forward, Barça boast some exceptionally gifted technical players such as Lionel Messi and Iniesta, as well as thoroughbred strikers like Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry. United have evolved into an awe-inspiring side strong in every department, with vast experience, incredible speed when the wheels are in full motion, rock-solid central defenders, two tireless holding midfielders and a fearsome pair of forwards.
In any team obsessed with attacking football, defensive solidity tends to suffer and Barcelona are no exception. They can be put under pressure from high balls. Meanwhile, the absence of suspended Scottish midfielder Darren Fletcher will be a handicap for the Red Devils. Alongside Michael Carrick, he constitutes the launch pad for his team's moves while guaranteeing stability in the middle of the park.
Josep Guardiola is a young trainer but, loyal to the system laid down by Johan Cruyff, he preaches an ultra-modern 4-3-3 formation dedicated to attacking football that has completely seduced the difficult Camp Nou faithful.
Sir Alex Ferguson needs no introduction at this stage, having overseen United since 1986 and won every trophy going during more than 1,200 matches. His experience is as legendary as his ability to manage a squad and get the very best out of his star players.
The key players
Top scorer in this season's Champions League with eight goals, Messi is usually at the heart of Barça's finest moments, but when he is kept quiet, as he was in the semi-finals, another artist can be expected to emerge and take the baton. For United, Cristiano Ronaldo may not be everyone's favourite player, but he remains a footballer of rare quality. The Portuguese winger is capable of turning a match with a single piece of skill or a pinpoint shot from distance - as he did with his free-kick from 35 metres out against Arsenal.
Since the Champions League was launched, three other defending champions have reached the final the following year: AC Milan in 1995, Ajax in 1996 and Juventus in 1997. All three tasted defeat at the second attempt, but United will travel to Rome knowing they have yet to lose a decider in Europe's premier club competition.
What they said
"We feel stronger technically and mentally than last season. But to prove that, we'll have to win the final." Patrice Evra, Manchester United full-back
Have your say
Will Barcelona's defence hold out against United's menacing forwards? Will the Red Devils become the first team to successfully defend their crown? Let us know your thoughts by adding a comment below.