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Football's High Noon
It always ends on a high, and as the curtains fall on the football season today, it will be no different. Manchester United may have fallen from their lofty standards, but they have still marched on to the grand stage of Wembley with ease. Favourites Barcelona were always expected to get there by expressway. A fourth Champions League trophy beckons both.
Two little words sum up United's season. Home comfort. In what can be termed a dismal away season, Alex Ferguson's wards more than made up for it at 'Bold Trafford'. No doubt, they were helped along the way by the mid-season blip in Chelsea's fortunes and Arsenal's lack of sinewy depth. The final points tally in the English Premiership - 80 - was the lowest winning total since the 2000/2001 season. United not at their best but good enough, or has it been just a crazy unpredictable season? They peaked when it mattered, powered on by last-minute goals and overall contribution from a strong squad. Easier said than done, though.
Barcelona, by contrast, have been galloping through the season. Pushed hard by a determined, maturing Madrid, they had gasped for breath, but only when the finish line was in sight. The 96 points they earned, followed by Real Madrid at 92, tell the whole story. No matter how good you are, Barcelona are better.
But do they look into the mirror and think so? Roger Federer and Tiger Woods developed a narcissistic edge to their own detriment. You have to be a step ahead, and more importantly, keep working at what you already know.
Any thoughts of complacency creeping into the Barcelona squad, of course, will be brushed away by the demanding Pep Guardiola, who has already announced that his side has "everything to fear about United".
In the war of attrition against Clasico rivals Real, he had out-thought superstrategist Jose Mourinho. While the Blaugrana's play-acting did not attract any admirers, it was the perfect counter against the Portuguese's hard-tackling approach. Barcelona's apparent 'power off the pitch' stems from the beautiful game on it. Football fans, and that includes referees, will always side with the beautiful game and any attempt to scar won't go unpunished, although repeat Oscar performances won't be savoured.
Nemanja Vidic, fearing the worst, has stoked the debate, stressing on the different mentalities. Interestingly, Spanish football critic Guillem Balague has deliberated on the clash of styles: "It is part of the Latin culture. Students of Spanish will be familiar with the tradition of historical literary characters like Lazarillo who use guile, cunning to turn the tables on society;subversives are seen as heroes."
A few months ago, it was the straight-talking Xavi who put the diverse games in perspective, when Arsenal visited Camp Nou. "You are a nation of warriors, " he said. "If I go to Liverpool and someone puts the ball into the area and Carragher hammers it out of play, then the fans applaud. It's a different culture that values different things. At Nou Camp, if they see you are afraid when you are in possession then you get whistled. It's the world in reverse."
So Barca must have the ball. For United, it is a massive test because in the EPL, they are used to controlling the pace of play. Now, if and when they manage to steal the ball from the opponents' feet, they will have to make possession count.
Alex Ferguson, whose 69-year-old drooping frame will stand in stark contrast to the 40-year-old lithe figure of Pep Guardiola in the Wembley dugouts, will remember the Rome 2009 final too well. Winning is his tradition, and the frowning taskmaster has won two out of three Champions League finals although they have been nothing short of dramatic - the injury-time reversal of fortune against Bayern in 1999 and John Terry's choked-up penalty in 2008. Rome, however, provided a different climax. It seems that Ferguson had not decided what to say to his team until the last moment. Pep had a masterstroke: he showed his team a seven-minute film with their greatest moments interspersed with clips from Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator leaving several players in tears and all motivated. The wily old fox had been hoodwinked by the intense Armani man. Before the Club World Cup final in 2009, he told his subjects: "If you lose you will still be the best team in the world;if you win you will be eternal."
In London, he will utter nothing less. "He has the ability to convince you of his ideas, " the unassuming Andres Iniesta says. Follow the leader, play your game, and the Cups will runneth over.
Only one man may have got under his skin and that is Mourinho, and Fergie said he would be dialling M for secrets. The Portuguese who has had his runins with the Scot in the past, had unravelled the Barcelona puzzle last season with Inter. He tried again, successful this time in the King's Cup final, with the theory that aggression and directness can leave Barcelona frustrated.
Now, Rio Ferdinand has been equipped with an iPad dossier of individual opponents while the reserves team has been asked to create a shadow Barcelona team for the first XI to play. Undoubtedly, Guardiola, a compulsive worker who lives and breathes football, would have prepared a comprehensive plan too, but the focus will be on his own team, ensuring the 'tiki-taka' is working with clockwork precision.
Lionel Messi has been unstoppable this season, with 52 goals including 11 goals in 12 Champions League matches, and word has it that indefatigable Korean Park Ji-Sung may be entrusted the task of marking Messi. 'Mession' Impossible, he says, is all down to teamwork. Indeed, it was collective effort that pushed United towards a record 19th domestic title. Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov was largely anonymous this season, but he was still joint topscorer in England while bargain buy Mexican Javier Hernandez was the perfect goal-poacher. Wayne Rooney redeemed himself after cleverly holding the United management to ransom. Ryan Giggs has provided an intriguing sub-plot to the proceedings with his shenanigans off the field, but he's no twit on it, and the veteran Welshman, with remarkable singlemindedness when the ball is in play, will provide the much-needed experience although secretly he would be thankful there are no Liverpool or City fans on the other side.
It's a futile exercise to dedicate another lyrical paean to this Barca dream team. It has been done several times before, so just watch and admire. One of England's best-ever strikers, a former Barcelona player, has suggested that the Catalan team only has to turn up to win. "United need luck, their best chance is Messi pulling up in training, " says Gary Lineker, sizing up the enormous task that awaits the Red Devils.
United may have to ditch their own game, start fast off the blocks, play with boundless energy and badger Messi & Co in order to disrupt their rhythm. For Barca, it's pass, move and break down your opponents' resolve, and they may have to be patient, just like they were against Real Madrid. They are the overwhelming favourites, but upsets have been caused before. Over two legs, there would have been only one theme for the dream. In a one-off game, it's more difficult to predict unless you are Octopus Paul's reincarnation. Nineteen years on from that May day when Barcelona lifted their first European Cup, Guardiola returns to the scene of that triumph, hoping to add to the Catalan folklore. But remember, Wembley is home for United.
The Champions League final is expected to be worth around £30m (approx Rs 219 cr) to London's economy.
This month's FA Cup final at Wembley had 35 camera positions, while the Champions League final will have 90;the number of commentators rises from an average of four to 130, press from 300 to 600, photographers from 90 to 190.
If Barcelona beat Manchester, Spain will overtake Italy in terms of most Champions League/European Cup trophies. At the moment, they are tied on 12 trophies each, with England a close third (11).
If Manchester Utd are victorious, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will become the oldest player to win the Champions League/European Cup. The oldest player to feature in the final will still be Juventus keeper Dino Zoff: He was 41 years and 86 days old in the 0-1 loss to Hamburg in the 1983 final.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi is the Champions League's top scorer this season with 11 goals. If he keeps hold of top spot, he would become the first player to win it outright in three consecutive seasons in the European Cup. He is already Barcelona's leading scorer in the history of the competition (36 goals).
Barcelona have never failed to score in their last 20 Champions League games. The last side to stop them from scoring were Rubin Kazan in November 2009.
Manchester United's Dimitar Berbatov has failed to score in his last 1, 134 minutes of action in the Champions League. His last goal in the competition dates back to October 2008 (v Celtic). Incidentally, Berbatov is the joint-top scorer in the Premiership this season with Manchester City's Carlos Tevez. Both have scored 21 goals.
ROMANCE, TRAGEDY AND PASSION
Barcelona and Manchester United are both seeking a fourth European Cup, which would take them level with AFC Ajax and Bayern Munich and behind Liverpool FC (five wins), AC Milan (seven) and Real Madrid (nine). Sarath Pookat and James Hardy provide us with more nuggets on the history of the two super teams.
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