Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wembley final promises much

UEFA Champions League Final 2011 - Barcelona v Manchester United 19:45 GMT

In 1992, with 70,000 others, I saw Barcelona win their first European Cup at Wembley.

How was it such a storied club had never done it before
? Who knows, although they have made up for lost time since and are set to stay a European giant for the foreseeable future.

As they enter their second final in three seasons, once more locking swords
with Manchester United, Barcelona have to prove they are one of the greatest teams of all time, as many have claimed.

Their swatting of Arsenal raised club football to a new height because of the intensity of the pressing and the intricacy of their close passing, a hybrid game which left Europe stunned.

Man United are more direct and wide, preferring to attack than marinate possession, a legacy of their English origins: The clash of styles is one to relish; then there is the opportunity for Alex Ferguson to show he has learned from the defeat in 2009. It is quickly forgotten that Man U had
Barça on the ropes in the opening ten minutes, before the game metamorphosed after Barcelona scored with their first attack.

The Catalans clearly have the edge, although the English setting and weather (it is cool and cloudy in London today) will give the Red Devils confidence too. Perhaps Javier Hernandez, who has electrified the domestic league this season, will snatch the crown from Lionel Messi.

Not that Barça will not feel at home: Pep Guardiola himself was on the turf in 1992.
This Wembley is a new building however, with no resemblance to the old Twin Towers.

While it promises to be a classic final, it could just as easily be an ultra-cagey affair as finals often are, where nerves and the meeting of two great teams cancel out the space and mistakes that open contests need.

Spain is split between Real and Barça just like England is between pro and anti Man United. Barça won admirers with their tiki-taka masterclass against the Gunners, but lost many fans with their gamesmanship against Real in the semi-final. We do not like to see our heroes pretending to be injured, diving for free-kicks or waving imaginary cards in the referee's face to get opponents sent off.

A fair fight and an enthralling contest is what the world has ordered.

As long as the fans are happy I am. I could not afford to repeat my 1992 visit tonight as UEFA and Co. had increased ticket prices to extortionate levels. But I have fond memories of that balmy day when Catalans and Genoese came to town.

The stadium fans might be an afterthought these days for the corporate circus that football has become, but the thousands of fans in London will be enjoying it more than anyone.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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