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Hazard shines but Blues stumble

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Paris Match

It's exaggerating things just a bit to state that we have the Champions League final everyone wanted. There is after all the small matter of Milan and Villarreal fans' feelings to take into account.

However, can anyone deny that Barcelona v Arsenal in one of the world's most magnificent capitals represents anything other than a mouth-watering prospect?

Fair enough. If we want to be pernickety about it, the game itself takes place in the north-eastern suburb of St. Denis, rather than in central Paris itself. But let's not allow such trivial matters get in the way of our dream final.

Often in recent years, the Champions League decider (can we not still call it the European Cup final?) has rather got lost in the commotion of World Cup build-up. Somehow, I don't sense such danger on the horizon in 2006.

Stylistically, Barcelona and Arsenal favour playing their football in a manner that attracts the uncommitted. That is of course, if you disregard Arsenal's woefully unadventurous semi-final second leg performance at the Madrigal!

Until that game I had never considered Arsenal a defensive side. I still can't quite bring myself to that conclusion, even though parsimony has prevailed over panache in this incredible Champions League run.

It's difficult to imagine that Arsène Wenger himself believed his normally free-flowing, risk embracing team could reach the final on the back of a competition record 10 successive clean sheets: a grand total of 919 minutes without shipping a goal, and still counting. All this with a makeshift back four for whom Ivorians Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué have excelled.

Still, defending superbly is one thing. Repelling Barcelona is another matter altogether. I'm in the privileged position of getting to see a lot of the blaugrana. I'll concede that they've lost a little bit of their dynamism in recent weeks, and one can justifiably put that down to the thigh injury young Leo Messi picked up on 7 March against Chelsea.

But with or without Messi, Barcelona are an absolute joy to watch. Only a philistine could fail to enjoy the verve and charisma of Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Deco.

Frank Rijkaard's back four is unfairly maligned. Critics of Oleguer, Gio Van Bronckhorst and goalkeeper Victor Valdes have tried to tell me they're suspect, but surely they're clutching at straws. Have we forgotten that the only goals they've conceded in the knockout stages were an own goal by Thiago Motta at Stamford Bridge, and a dubious stoppage time penalty in the return leg against the Premiership champions?

They do tend to play high up the park as a unit, and can be vulnerable to swift balls over the top. This could be grist to Thierry Henry's mill. Certainly the linking up of Cesc Fabregas and his fellow midfield players with the Arsenal captain will have to be much better than it was in Villarreal the other night, if the Gunners are to take advantage.

I'll have more to say about the match itself in this space as we get closer to the big night. However, it would be remiss of me if I didn't let regular viewers of ESPNSoccernet Press Pass know that we'll be in Paris well ahead of time to bring you lively discussion from our set overlooking the Champs-Elysses. If you enjoyed our shows from Istanbul last year, you're in for more of the same.

Our programme on Monday 15 May will be on air at the usual time with a rich Parisien flavour. Tommy Smyth and Janusz Michallik will be with me to help set the table for the week's events. We'll also be with you the following day, Tuesday 16 May, with a special 'eve of the big game' show.

Then, on the night of the final, our ESPN coverage begins forty-five minutes before the game and runs until, well, every angle has been covered.

As Barcelona and Arsenal fans can testify, tickets are at a premium. An allocation of just over 20,000 per team has been set aside by UEFA, and it's not as if we're talking about two teams with paltry followings.

So if getting to Paris is a journey too far, or too difficult, rest assured you'll be able to savour the before, during, and after with us on ESPN.

In the meantime, I'm trying to assure Mr. Smyth 'with a y' that escargots are indeed good for you - tasty too.


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