Stage Set For Match Made In Heaven
That time comes at 19.45 tonight. The best team in England versus the best team in the world. Manchester United versus Barcelona in the Champions League final. A troubled sport receives a welcome adrenalin shot.
For this is the game that promises everything. This is the game that boasts the muscular dexterity of Wayne Rooney versus the darting elegance of Lionel Messi. It offers two of the finest centre-halves, Rio Ferdinand and Gerard Piqué, and two of the toughest, Nemanja Vidic and Carles Puyol. It has two managers in Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola who respect each other, whose enlightened footballing credos should be the mantra for all.
A glance at the squads highlights a commitment to nurturing talent. The final is steeped in emotional story-lines, from Edwin van der Sar’s farewell to Eric Abidal’s presence after his tumour operation via the state of Ryan Giggs’s mind amid the headlines from hell. The spotlight will inevitably be on Messi, striving at the eighth attempt for his first goal on English soil as a Barca player.
History is all around. Sergio Busquets’s father was the Barcelona keeper beaten by that angled Cup-Winners’ Cup strike from Mark Hughes in Rotterdam 20 years ago. As Busquets and Rooney collide, Sir Bobby Charlton looks down from the smart seats at the scene of his two goals in the 1968 final. Paddy Crerand wills United forward from the commentary gantry.
Down at pitch-level, Guardiola will gaze out across the much-improved greensward where he prevailed in 1992. One of the stars of that Barcelona team, Hristo Stoichkov, strolled into the ground yesterday with Bulgarian TV, his gunslinger’s gait unchanged from his goal-plundering pomp.
As well as the world’s media, Wembley will also host two of the greatest, most passionate supports in Europe. So, to rewrite Barcelona’s motto, this is More Than A Final. After weeks of on-field theatricals and off-field shenanigans, football needs a 90-minute carnival, a game where respect is a guiding principle, not simply a label on players’ shirts.
A chance meeting with the cricketer Freddie Flintoff this week brought immediately to mind the image of a victorious sportsman consoling the vanquished, the triumphant Englishman sparing a thought for the Australian Brett Lee during the 2005 Ashes. Football could do with a touch of the Flintoff ethos.
Today’s special occasion underneath the arch could deteriorate into a slanging match and diving fest, yet the hope is strong that sportsmanship will define relations between United and Barcelona. This is no cynical Clasico. So a word to Busquets and Dani Alves: don’t fall over, don’t stay down, don’t hound Victor Kassai and his assistants. The world is watching.
Football is the king of sports but too often the knave. It needs today to be a celebration of the game’s positives, the metronome passing of Xavi, the intelligent runs of Javier Hernández and the breathless breaks of Patrice Evra. Inevitably, all eyes will be transfixed by the movement of Messi, the embodiment of the Beautiful Game.
Even those who have graced World Cups, who have set scoring records and been European Footballers of the Year cannot wait. “I couldn’t imagine a more perfect final,” says Michael Owen. “Sometimes teams will get to the Champions League final but you know it’s not the best team because it’s a knockout competition. This year it is the best two teams in Europe, the best venue in Europe, the Champions League final. It doesn’t get any bigger. It is set up for a cracker.
“Everyone’s saying Barcelona are the greatest team of all time and I wouldn’t really argue with that. In my time I have not seen a team play as good and attractive football as that. That’s not to say they are unbeatable. It’s a one-off game, in our country, and we are used to playing at Wembley. We have a lot of things in our favour.”
So let the good times roll, even if only for 90 minutes. Let’s forget for one night that the final is at Wembley, the Theatre of Debts, at the home of a national association seeking to cut itself off from world football. Let’s hope for a spectacle in keeping with the competition’s grand traditions, that began with Alfredo di Stéfano’s masterclass in the first final, way back in 1956.
Let’s have a classic of the quality of Real Madrid 7, Eintracht Frankfurt 3 at Hampden Park, the meeting and scoreline that quickened Ferguson’s love affair with the game. Let us cherish the game that makes legends. As Bob Paisley remarked to Jock Stein after Celtic’s astonishing 1967 victory over Inter Milan: “John, you’re immortal”.
A year on, Charlton, George Best and Brian Kidd were striding towards glory at Wembley. Turn the pages of history and revel in the good guys, Johan Cruyff taking Inter apart in ’72, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish combining to defeat Bruges in ’78, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit shredding Steaua Bucharest’s defence in 1989. Major episodes in the long-running epic.
This is the heritage that Rooney and Messi, Ferdinand and Piqué must live up to. So many moments leap from the pages of the history books. Fabio Capello masterminded Milan’s 1994 destruction of Barcelona that even the Uefa annals described as “as one-sided as a firing squad”. And the “name on the trophy” marvel of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 1999, Zinedine Zidane’s volleyed response to Roberto Carlos’s cross in 2002. So many chapters in the history books.
Some finals have been torturous, and anybody who watched the 2003 Milan-Juventus bore at Old Trafford probably needed counselling, but many memorable moments have arisen. Steven Gerrard refused to countenance defeat against Milan in 2005 and United keeping their nerve – and footing – against John Terry’s Chelsea in the 2008 shoot-out.
United deservedly lost to Barcelona in 2009, a dispiriting evening that remains painfully embedded in the memories of Ferguson and his players.
Those involved in Rome talked this week of a desire to do themselves justice this time, to give Guardiola’s side more of a game.
And they will. There is a quiet determination in the United camp, a feeling that they have prepared well this time. Ferguson’s players were working on their pressing tactics for Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Messi even before they had completed their Premier League campaign on Sunday.
They face the Everest of all challenges. If United are to lift a fourth European Cup then all of their players must be at the very top of their game. The Catalans are likely to enjoy the ball’s company for as much as 70 per cent of the game.
That means every Michael Carrick pass must find a man in white, every Antonio Valencia run at Abidal must count and every Fabio tackle be clean. Any cheap surrender of possession, and Barcelona will fly through United towards Van der Sar.
For all United’s lengthy preparation, for all the quality of Rooney and Hernández and not least their ingrained mental toughness, Barcelona possess more aces. They have Xavi. They have Iniesta. They have a certain magical Argentine. This could be the Messi Final. Barcelona to win.