Liam Barnes

Whatever happens on 27th May, one of football’s heavyweights will go one step closer to throwing a monkey off their backs. Manchester United, for all of their domination of the Premiership era, still lag behind in Europe to their great foe Liverpool, and victory this year would bring them to within one European cup of their East Lancs Road rivals. Barcelona meanwhile have a lot more ground to make up, lagging behind Real Madrid 9-2 in European Cups, but a second triumph in four years would go a long way to restoring prestige to the Catalan giants.

In one of the most hotly anticipated finals for years, fans worldwide will be wishing for both teams to carry on their general play this season and excel in the attacking side of the game, a facet often sacrificed in favour of caution and organisation in grand occasions such as this. The way Man Utd stylishly dispatched the young Turks of Arsenal in the last round, coupled with Barça’s positive and forward-thinking (if vulnerable and perhaps fortunate) style of play against Chelsea, has fuelled the hope that this will be a classic final to rank with the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’, the drama of 1999 and even the gold-standard of Real Madrid’s 7-3 demolition of Frankfurt in 1960. Even if Man Utd’s 1-0 aggregate win over Barça in last year’s semi-finals was not totally exhilarating, the one-off nature of the game, and the fact that Barcelona simply cannot defend, means that this year has the makings of a classic.

Tournament finals are often dull affairs, and though in recent years fans have been treated to the likes of Liverpool’s comeback against AC Milan in 2005, the Liverpool – West Ham FA Cup Final a year later and the drama of Zidane’s head-butt and penalties in the last World Cup, no-one player has really stood out as turning the game or winning the trophy like Maradona, Platini or Pele did.

Last year’s Champions League and European Championship finals were good endings to high-quality tournaments, but lacked a truly outstanding individual turn, and except for Steven Gerrard’s heroic rescue acts for Liverpool, and perhaps Ronaldo in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup triumph, finals of the last decade have followed the pattern of one team, or one squad, edging out a (roughly) equal rival. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka have had been leading lights in winning teams, but who could argue that they were indispensible or inspirational, considering the vast array of talent that accompanied them?

The lack of such individual finals that were dominated by one player does suggest the greater reliance on a large and hard-working squad as opposed to leaving it all up to one star player. Italy won the World Cup with their joint-top scorers – that one of them was Marco Materazzi says a lot – on only two goals. Greece ground out a Euro 2004 win with gutsy team play, and even big clubs such as AC Milan and Barcelona have had recent European Cups won by virtue of team ethic over superstar indulgence. Barcelona reflect this trend in that Messi is only part of a potent attacking trident which itself relies on support from Xavi, Iniesta and Dani Alves, rather than Messi upstaging everyone and being the fulcrum of every move. Manchester United’s use of rotation of even its star players like Rooney and Ronaldo adds to this picture of the modern game relying on assembling a deep squad in favour of a marquee signing dragging a side to victory.

This has not meant that finals have become less enjoyable. For every eye-wateringly dull Man Utd – Chelsea FA Cup final (2007) or AC Milan – Juventus Champions League final (2003), there has been a Barcelona – Arsenal (2006), a Liverpool – AC Milan (2007), or a Real Madrid – Valencia (2000). It is also not as if the finals of a few decades ago were always thrilling (Italia ’90 or Steaua Bucharest’s European Cup win in 1986 spring to mind).

This year’s Champions League final though has definitely created an unusual buzz, similar to that around the 1994 final, between Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ Barcelona and Fabio Capello’s all-conquering AC Milan. This is not just because Josep Guardiola, the captain of that fêted Catalan side, is now the manager of the new incarnation of fantasy football at the Camp Nou; both sides have won the league with relatively few hiccups, both sides have the most fearsome forward lines in club football, and both sides have monumental global following. The ’94 final was certainly memorable, but not for a closely-fought tie, as AC Milan put on one of the greatest football exhibitions ever in thumping Barça 4-0 – even with both full-backs suspended and Rooney terrorising defenders coming in from the left, another such devastating defeat would be unlikely.

Such a shaky and patched-up defence means Barcelona must attack, and with Man Utd such brilliant and pacey counter-attackers, it does seem strange that Barcelona are slight favourites for the tie, especially considering the fine containing job Chelsea did for most of the semis, which Man Utd’s better defence could easily build on. The expectation is that Man Utd will scent blood with Dani Alves and Eric Abidal both suspended, and be more bold and more willing to attack than Chelsea were, and the team with the most stars shining on the night should prevail. To see one player steal the show in the manner of Maradona and Co. may be unlikely, but that does not dampen the anticipation that it will turn out to be one of the great games of football.

For one club, it surely will be remembered forever as a dream come true.

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