One of the great ironies of the 2010 UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan at Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium on Saturday is that the main protagonist for each side will be a Real reject.
Bayern's Arjen Robben and Inter's Wesley Sneijder were forced out of the Bernabeu last summer to make way for mega-money star signings Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and even Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema. Neither Robben nor Sneijder wanted to leave but Real's loss turned out to be Bayern and Inter's gain.
In fact the two Dutchmen have arguably been their new teams' best players this season with Robben scoring the crucial last goals in the Bavarians' 3-2 defeats at both Fiorentina and Manchester United to allow the Germans to squeeze through on away goals each time. Sneijder's vision, passing and exocet free-kicks have brought a new dimension to Inter's attacking play in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era.
And the irony that two Real outcasts will once again be gracing the Bernabeu while their expensive replacements are already on holiday has not been lost on Bayern's Robben. "We both wanted to stay in Madrid at the start of the season," he told the Bayern website.
"But the situation changed, and we both decided to go. Coming back now is great. Real's dream was to be in the final at their home ground, but it's not worked out. We left, found new clubs, and now we're in the final."
The two Dutch friends have been exchanging jovial banter over sms messages in the run up to the final but once they get out on the pitch their friendship will have to be on pause. "We're both aware of the situation. Everyone wants to win. We can both be proud of the season so far," added Robben, who rubbished reports from Italy that Sneijder might be ruled out of the final with injury. "He'll play, I'm 100 per cent certain. He may need 100 injections, but he'll play."
Treble on the line
Another interesting backdrop to the final is that both teams have completed domestic doubles already and whoever wins will become only the third team in history to complete the treble following Manchester United in 1999 (who denied Bayern that feat) and Barcelona last season. Also the two coaches have already won this competition with other clubs and whoever wins the final will join Ottmar Hitzfeld (Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern in 2001) and Ernst Happel (Feyenoord in 1970 and Hamburg in 1983) as winners with two different clubs.
Inter's Jose Mourinho won the title with Porto in 2004 while Bayern's Louis van Gaal won it with Ajax in 1995. But there is no love lost between the two. "In this Champions League I don't remember another match like Inter-Barcelona at the San Siro," said Mourinho. "No one else has played the football we played, no one else attacked the champions of Europe as much as we did.
"No one attacked as we did at Stamford Bridge (against Chelsea). We played two matches like no one else. Saying the things he (Van Gaal) said is like kicking sand in our faces."
And Mourinho pointed out that Bayern had had their fair share of favourable decisions, such as Miroslav Klose's dubious goal in the first leg against Fiorentina and the sending off of Manchester United fullback Rafael in the second leg against the Premier League team which United had been dominating until then. "Italians have not forgotten the match against Fiorentina in the same way the English have not forgotten Rafael's red card, but that's not my problem," said Mourinho.
The Portuguese coached Robben at Chelsea and the Dutch winger said he is looking forward to seeing his old boss, who he likens to his new gaffer. "We won everything there is to win in England, and we made history, because Chelsea won the league for the first time in 50 years," he said.
"I had nothing but positive experiences there, and I'm looking forward to seeing him. Van Gaal sets up teams to attack and thinks offensively. Mourinho's only aim is to win, and he thinks more about defensive organisation. Both are equally strict and both are huge characters. That's critical in football. When they speak, you listen."
Both teams had a man sent off in the semi-finals meaning Bayern's Franck Ribery and Inter's Thiago Motta are suspended for the final.