A dream date with destiny

A BALL hasn’t even been kicked yet and, already, we are in danger of exhausting the superlatives.

If tonight’s Champions’ League final is half as monumental as the build-up, we’ll have no cause for complaint. But such is the intense burden of expectation surrounding the meeting of Manchester United and Barcelona, it inevitably brings with it the nagging worry that anything less than the majestic and historic – or to put it more bluntly, a beauty contest with balls – will feel like an anti-climax.

Still, the grounds for hope are understandable and not just rooted in the commitment to attacking excellence which unites these two great clubs. This evening’s showdown offers a host of intriguing sub-plots, contrasting personalities and invigorating individual duels.

For United, a fourth premier European title beckons, 31 years after they won their first under the inspired leadership of Matt Busby, whose 100th birthday would have been yesterday and whose immense legacy at Old Trafford will be poignantly remembered in the Stadio Olimpico tonight when United supporters unveil a massive mosaic in his honour just before kick off.

A win for United however, and few will be able to argue that Alex Ferguson’s achievements have not eclipsed even those of the man who effectively raised the club from the dead. A fourth triumph at this level would put Ferguson on a par with Liverpool’s Bob Paisley as the managers with the most European Cup wins, would make United the first side to retain the trophy since the competition was rebranded as the Champions League, and would also complete a season quadruple of League, Carling Cup and World Club Championship. Them’s the facts, as Rafa might not like to say.

But the man in the opposing dugout is also busy establishing his own landmarks and, unlike Ferguson, is doing so in only his first season in charge at the Camp Nou. With the Spanish league and cup already secured, Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola – at just 38, an apprentice by contrast with the master Ferguson, who will turn 68 next December – is now on course to join the elite club of men who have won European football’s greatest prize as both player and manager. (Just to accentuate the difference: when Fergie embarked on his first European campaign as manager of Aberdeen in 1978, Pep was only seven years old). Victory would put Barca level with United on three titles each, the former’s pursuit of Real Madrid’s record haul of nine European Cups as fiercely driven – for much the same reasons – as United’s is of Liverpool’s five.

So there’s already plenty at stake in tonight’s match even before we impose our hopes that proceedings will adorn the sport as a whole.

And for that to happen, much will depend on how the star names perform. In particular, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be going head to head for the right to be seen as the best player in the world. Both have a point to prove. Ronaldo, although he finished the season strongly, continues to divide opinion and needs a big game on the biggest stage to endorse his claims to greatness. Over the past couple of years, Messi has consistently performed at a notch or two above Ronaldo – and indeed every other attacking player on the planet – but his low-key showing over the two legs in the semi-final against Chelsea means he too must raise his game to the optimum level if any remaining doubts about his talent are to be laid to rest in Rome.

But Messi’s comrades will also have to do better than they did at Stamford Bridge because, while Rio Ferdinand’s availability is a boost for Manchester United, even Alex Ferguson admitted yesterday tonight’s game will be won by “the players who can create and score”. He was talking about his own players, of course, but the remark could equally be applied to the opposition.

Guardiola is the coach with most improving to do when it comes to team selection and deployment of personnel. While Rio Ferdinand has confirmed his fitness for United, the Barca manager has struggled to patch-up his mottled defence, admitting yesterday that he had to persuade Malian midfielder Seydou Keita to play at left-back. However, Guardiola said he fully expected Thierry Henry and the hugely influential Andres Iniesta to be fit.

As if often the case in these situations, yesterday’s pre-match press conference in the bowels of the Stadio Olimpico was a disjointed affair, with microphones feeding back and translations going four ways at once. What was striking, however, was how relaxed Alex Ferguson seemed to be despite the occasional chaos – and even the intrusion of an opportunistic chap from Spanish TV who successfully persuaded Ronaldo to back the youth vote in the European elections. Rather more to the point of the occasion, Ronaldo, who missed a penalty in the shoot-out in Moscow last year revealed that he has busy practising them this time around.

There were chuckles when Ferguson was asked if he had given any thought to the words of inspiration with which he will fire up his charges tonight. “Not thought of a thing,” he grinned. “That usually happens at 3am when I try to get some inspiration from the deep, tiny chambers of my mind. But now? Nothing.”

Ah, those old mind games. No one knows better than Ferguson what it will take to win tonight. (For the record, he nominated playing well, concentration and a bit of luck). He also knows that, as he said himself, if you want to be in the pantheon, you have to win the big pots.

In truth, it’s not just Barcelona who always tend to have Real Madrid in their sights. United, as the ‘away’ side, will wear white this evening, and Ferguson was amused yesterday to be reminded that the last time Barca played a team in white, they won 6-2. “That wasn’t a defeat, that was annihilation,” the United manager observed. “But we are happy to play in white... and we are better than Madrid.”

You got the sense listening to Ferguson yesterday that, behind the easy going persona on display for the world’s press, he believes that with this team he is laying the foundations for years of dominance at Old Trafford, perhaps eventually even to knock Madrid off their European perch, just as he delivered on his promise he would knock Liverpool off theirs in England.

And where better to go empire-building than in Rome?

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