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May 16, 2006

Clash of the Titans

Liverpool's dramatic comeback against West Ham United in the FA Cup final led to many stories of how one man can make a team.

At the Millennium Stadium it was Steven Gerrard who proved one talismanic player can make the difference between success and failure. The Hammers were left with no answer, no Gerrard of their own to call on.

It's a different matter here in Paris as both Arsenal and Barcelona boast one of the world's greatest attacking stars. Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho will look to perform heroics in the Champions League - back in Paris where the first final was held on the 50th anniversary of the competition.

Saint Denis already has a buzz about it, despite the match still being 24 hours away. A constant stream of people from both Barcelona and Islington, or from wherever they hail, circle the cavernous Stade de France.

That all those supporters can get a brief glimpse of the pitch through access gates purely adds to the expectation.

Every now and then a car does a tour of duty, horns in full flow and flags wave, as a war cry to their team's hopes. More often than not it's fans of the La Liga champions Barcelona creating the atmosphere having driven across the border from Spain.

There are, of course, the desperates trudging a forlorn path with signs asking for spare tickets, other fans discussing which bar to frequent if they cannot get into the game and locals just there because they can be.

It's almost as if there is an undercurrent of excitement just waiting to explode on Wednesday evening. The Stade de France, complete with running track, may not be famed for its electric atmosphere, but the passion of the Arsenal fans and the colourful nature of their counterparts will ensure that hurdle is overcome.

If the pre-match hype is to be believed the Stade de France will witness a titanic battle which dwarves that incredible FA Cup final match in Cardiff last weekend. Both sides are infamous for their penchant for goals, slick passing and a dedication to the term 'the beautiful game'.

Arsenal's French manager Arsene Wenger will be hoping victory over Barcelona in his own capital city will persuade Thierry Henry to extend his stay in north London. Of course, if Arsenal fail and he does leave it will almost certainly be for Barca's Camp Nou.

For Barcelona, the aim is to lift the trophy for only the second time in their prestigious history. That they have tasted glory only once before is something which causes not only dismay in the Catalan region but great joy for their European Cup-laden rivals in Madrid.

Despite the attacking nature of both teams, there has been much talk about this match being about the forward play of Barcelona, urged on by the irrepressible Ronaldinho with Cameroon international Samuel Eto'o leading the line to devastating effect, up against the steadfast resilience of the Gunners rearguard.

To simplify what is on paper arguably the best Champions League final in years in such a way is somewhat disrespectful to what should lay ahead.

Granted, Arsenal go into the final boasting a new competition record of ten consecutive clean sheets. But they obviously have much more about them with Francesc Fabregas pulling the strings in the centre of the park.

Whatever the outcome here, France is sure to have something to celebrate with Ludovic Giuly and Thierry Henry, among others, on opposite sides.

The match will also decide which nation is the most successful in the competition. England, Italy and Spain have all produced ten champions and something has to give.

For England it would be a third success in only eight seasons. Spain have enjoyed similar success, with Real Madrid three times winners since 1997/98,

With so much focus on Henry and Ronaldinho it's easy to forget the other outstanding talents on show, of which there are many. But you just get the feeling that, for one of these players, it is going to be their final, their time to reign European club football on the biggest of stages.

Perhaps Ronaldinho's finest moment to date came earlier this season when the whole of the Bernabeu stood to applaud a virtuoso performance. Real Madrid supporters rising to acclaim a player from their deadliest rivals - who had just taken them apart on their own turf - speaks volumes.

Arsenal's faithful will be hoping their lasting memory of their greatest ever striker is not that hat-trick in the last ever game at Highbury, but the image of him lifting the Champions League trophy in Paris.

Big games need big characters. The question is: who will prove to be the star turn?

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.