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May 26, 2009

The Dream Final?

Guide | Stadio Olimpico | Final Factsheet | Key Battles
Barca - Player pen pix| Pep Guardiola | Sir Alex Ferguson | Man Utd - Player Pen Pix

ROUTES TO ROME: Barcelona | Manchester United


Barcelona versus Manchester United - for many it's the dream Champions League final: Two of the best supported teams in the world contesting the most prestigious club competition, and all in the Eternal City.

Wednesday's final at the Stadio Olimpico has all the ingredients to be a classic: the meeting of two great teams, the clash of great two managers, one vastly experienced, the other a relative novice, both men favouring an open attacking brand of football, and the small matter of the showdown between the two best players of their generation.

The meeting of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the biggest stage provides a unique chance to watch two masters at work. If witnessing the two most prodigiously, outrageously gifted players clash when the stakes couldn't be higher doesn't whet your sporting appetite, there's something wrong.

For many it is the unofficial title decider to see who can lay claim to the being the best player in the world; the reigning European and FIFA World Player of the Year from Portugal, or the 21-year-old Argentine.

Going into the final the weight of history appears to be on the side of Manchester United. They are aiming to secure their fourth European crown and are spurred on by the chance to become the first side since AC Milan in 1990 to retain the famous trophy - plus United boast a proud record of never having lost a European Cup final, playing and winning in three.

By contrast, Barca have two European Cup titles to their name, but have twice been runners up, and given the vastly differing levels of experience between the two managers it would be a brave soul who chose Barca over United.

Not only is Ferguson old enough to be Guardiola's father, but he has more trophies, more experience, more nous and arguably more will to win than his counterpart. The European Cup is the fuel that fires Ferguson; at 67 the Scot's last remaining ambition in the game is to cement his name, and that of Manchester United, in the annals of European football history.

It is the one area he feels his remarkably successful tenure as United coach can be criticised. The European Cup remains his Holy Grail.

The public's imagination is fired by the thought of United and Barca slugging it out on the Roman turf, knowing that both play football in "the right way", that is to say with the will to win rather than the will not to lose.

Too often European finals have been disappointing affairs with two cagey teams playing attritional, defensive football, wary that the slightest error could be exploited by talented opposition. In the case of Barca and United it is likely that both will play to win, both will choose to pass and move, playing to their strengths: their attack prowess.

While both teams are missing key players, it is Barcelona who are the more under-strength.

While United are missing the calm assurance and disruptive qualities of the suspended Darren Fletcher and have doubts over the match fitness of defender Rio Ferdinand, Barca are in far worse health, missing three first choice defenders: the injured Rafael Marquez and the suspended Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves.

Playing a second-choice backline, in the biggest game of the year against one of the best sides in the world is far from ideal. Much of the pressure will fall on the young shoulders of former United player Gerard Pique - deemed surplus to requirements by Ferguson - and Carles Puyol, who has had a disappointing personal season by his own standards.

The mouth waters at the prospect of seeing two of the most exciting attacking sides in Europe. While United's foursome of Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez are healthy and intact, Berbatov and Tevez can expect to start on the bench and all four will only share the pitch in a desperate search of a goal or in celebration.

Barca's much-vaunted attacking trio of Eto'o, Henry and Messi is sadly not on top form or fitness.

Messi will start and could steal the show, but he has never scored against English opposition, while Eto'o is out of form, having failed to find the net in his last three Champions League games. He has looked lacklustre in recent La Liga outings and doubts persist over Henry; even if he does shake off the injury that has kept him out of action since May 2 he will be well short of match fitness and sharpness.

Likewise Iniesta, who scored the goal which fired Barca into the final. If fit he could play a key role, but half-fit or short of match fitness Iniesta could be a passenger.

Along with injuries and suspension, two successive defeats in their last La Liga games may not have been the best preparation, but it would be foolhardy to write off Barca.

In less than 12 months, Guardiola has transformed Barcelona's fortunes, galvanising the Catalans into a close-knit unit of players who know what it takes to win.

One interesting subtext to the final is that Spanish and English sides have notched 11 wins each over the European Cup's 54-year history, meaning the final in Rome will give one country the ascendancy, for one year at least.

In Rome, against a United side at full strength and in form, Barcelona will need to draw on all their inner strength to lift the European Cup.

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