By Wayne Veysey
The stage is set. Two clubs with the histories, the players, the universal support and the style to grace the biggest club stage of all.
There are plenty, Sir Alex Ferguson included, who believe the final rounds of the Champions League comprise the finest footballing fare on the global menu – World Cups included.
Around 290 million people worldwide, including 86,000 fortunate souls at a reduced-capacity new Wembley, will be watching the action unfold tonight and hoping to see something that will echo through the ages.
One Chinese journalist asked Sir Alex Ferguson at his pre-match press conference if the final would be exciting enough to keep fans up in the middle of the night in her homeland. The knighted one paused, sized up his petite female inquisitor and smirked: “They won’t need a sleeping tablet, that’s for sure.”
Watching the two squads take part in hour-long training sessions on the immaculate Wembley turf yesterday evening was a reminder of the calibre of the talent that will be on view. From attacking magicians Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney to pass masters Xavi Hernandez and Ryan Giggs to defensive stallions Nemanja Vidic and Carlos Puyol, all bases, attacking and defensive, are covered.
Even the Glazer family – made up of brothers Joel, Avi, Bryan and Edward – popped in to Wembley to watch United train and soak up the pre-match atmosphere. The unpopular United owners even posed for pictures down by the pitch before standing on the touchline metres from where Wayne Rooney was pinging perfect 80-yard passes.
“It could be the best final of the decade,” opined Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps forgetting that the decade is not very old. Yet the point was made.
Pep prep | Barcelona train at Wembley ahead of Champions League final
“The attraction of two great teams with great history is obvious. It’s an appealing final in terms of what could happen in this game. Anything could happen. There could be a lot of goals, a lot of excitement. Hopefully it turns out that way. I don’t think anyone can question the attacking players that will be on view tomorrow.”
His opposite number, Pep Guardiola, during a noticeably longer press conference in which he mixed Spanish and Catalan with perfect English, knows the eyes of the world will be on the world’s most famous football cathedral.
“You have to show if we deserve this credit to be the best final in the last decade,” said Guardiola. “We are going to try. When you play in the final and both teams want to win and attack, you can imagine for the rest of the world it will be a great final.”
Guardiola’s side are poised to go where even Johan Cruyff’s early 1990s Dream Team never ventured by establishing a footballing dynasty in Europe to match some of the sport’s most fabled. Victory in their third final in six years will give Barca a fourth European Cup and move them level with 1970s continental-conquerors Ajax and Bayern Munich.
The Catalan stylists are the favourites and the dazzling speed and control of their passing demonstrated in a short practice match in training underlined the size of the task for United. At times, it was almost frightening to watch.
Yet, Ferguson’s team hardly pale by comparison. A fortnight after sealing the Premier League title, United will walk out at Wembley for their third Champions League final in four years.
The glory of Moscow in 2008 was followed by the pain of Rome a year later against Saturday's opponents.
United, Ferguson insists, are in better shape than they were the night they succumbed to that heartbreaking 2-0 setback. “We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. I think we maybe made one or two mistakes last time but not this time. We are as well prepared as we can be.”
A Scotsman in charge of an English team, Ferguson’s heart beats out a continental rhythm. He may have won more honours in the game (34) than any other manager, but European competition remains his overriding passion.
Comparing his current team to the 2009 losers, Ferguson believes the current Cristiano Ronaldo-less crop are more battle-hardened.
“I think we’ll have players who will like this stage tomorrow night,” explained the United manager. “We are much more mature now. Rooney is more mature than he was in 2009. Other players too, the experience of the two lads beside me [Rio Ferdinand and Vidic] are vital to us.”
It promises to be a romantic evening at the sport’s purist setting. Wembley, Ferguson insists, is “a symbol of English football” and “the right place for a final”.
As both teams know, it is time to write some history.
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