SO TONIGHT we will find out if Barcelona are as great as everyone says they are or if Manchester United are better than we think.
It’s hard to argue with the proposition that, if these two sides played to the limits of their respective abilities, it’s the Catalans who would emerge victorious — and by something rather more substantial than a nose. Or a nose sculpted by Michelangelo, at the very least. But, as in politics, so also in football — events, dear boy, have a way of undermining the most carefully thought-out analysis.
With just hours to go before the big kick-off, everyone has had their say by now, Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, the players and the pundits. But the diligent journalist, seeking the angle all the others have missed, always knows where to go for the last word — the old, reliable taxi driver. Hey, what do you think we mean when we talk about research?
As it happens, the man who dropped me off at Dublin Airport to catch my flight to London yesterday was a Red Devil who, by his own admission, feels his stomach churning every time he thinks of the scale of the challenge facing his side in Wembley this evening. But he cheered himself up by focusing on something else: the singular nature of tonight’s assignment.
“If this match was over two legs I could only see one winner,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be United. But in a one-off? Yeah, I think they can nick it.”
It’s a good point, and he doesn’t just have the evidence of 1999 in (of all places) Barcelona to bolster his contention that anything can happen in 90 minutes — or, even, more to the point, in two minutes. But he also has more recent history to back him up. Barcelona might have been more or less unstoppable in both the domestic and Champions League so far this season but Real Madrid still managed to get the better of them in the Copa Del Rey. And, as the sage Jamie Redknapp so memorably pointed out at the time: “Real Madrid aren’t in the same league as Barcelona.”
But, the one-off nature of the occasion apart, it’s hard to see how any other external factors will help tilt the balance in favour of one side or the other tonight.
Talk of United having home advantage rather overlooks the reality that passionate support for them in England is probably exceeded only by naked hatred for all they represent. For sure, Wembley holds a special place in the club’s heart as the venue where the boys of ‘68 brought home the European Cup for the first time (And there was Paddy Crerand, these days wearing a media hat, providing a flesh and blood link with that era as he watched Alex Ferguson conduct his eve-of-match press conference at the ground yesterday).
But even the England team itself has trouble tapping into national pride these days, so it’s hard to see how, when the inheritors of United’s great tradition walk out into a transformed Wembley tonight — and not via that famous old tunnel behind the goal, more’s the pity — the prospects of their overcoming the hydra-headed challenge of Barcelona will be in any way improved by the memory of events which, no matter how glorious, are almost sepia-tinted with age by now.
In truth, it might actually suit United better to regard tonight’s match in London as strictly an away game. After all, in contrast to their troubles on the road domestically this season, they have been invincible away from home en route to the Champions League final, racking up a remarkable 540 minutes without conceding a single goal.
At last night’s press conference at Wembley, Alex Ferguson was flanked by defensive bulwarks Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. “The experience of these two lads is vital to us,” said the manager, arguing that United are now a more mature side than the one given the runaround in Rome by Barca two years ago.
He also cited the invigorating return of Antonio Valencia (“an important part of us winning the league”) and the instant impact of Javier Hernandez (“none of us at the club expected him to achieve so much so quickly”) as reasons for United fans to believe that the bookies have got it all wrong ahead of tonight’s game.
“According to them we’re the underdogs, but it doesn’t matter what the betting says or what the pundits say,” said Ferguson. “What happens out there is all that matters. With the history, tradition and success of the two clubs, this could be the final of the decade. And anything could happen in this game.”
Which is true enough. It would hardly take a soothsayer to predict that Barca, as is their wont, will dominate possession. As Pep Guardiola says in an interview in tonight’s match programme: “I could forgive myself if Manchester United won the cup because they were better than us. But I could never permit my team to abandon our style of play.”
Looks like they won’t be parking the bus, so. And that being the case, perhaps the key question is how lethal they will be once they’ve got that ball on the end of a string. If there’s one niggling flaw in Barca’s make-up, it’s that their possession to goal-chances ratio can sometimes be a bit out of whack. That’s the real reason Arsenal came so close to winning against the head. On their night, of course, it all comes together and opponents are blown away in a storm of dizzying pass-and-move and finishing that’s not only clinical but audacious. However, if United can keep then at bay for long enough to strike first themselves this evening, then all the pre-match predictions could be cast to the wind.
Except that, somehow, I don’t think it’s going to pan out like that, especially if Messi lets his feet do the talking as only he can. If Barca are allowed to get a grip on this game then — sorry Mr Taxi Driver – it’s odds on another European season will end with Catalonia having the last word. Again.
Picture: REDS READY TO ROLL: The Manchester United squad go through their paces during a training session yesterday at Wembley ahead of tonight’s Champions League final against Barcelona.Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire
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