And so it has come down to this.
How appropriate that the two best teams in Europe meet in Rome, home of the coliseum. The coliseum, as we know, hosted fights between gladiators, vicious and unyielding in nature. How appropriate that more than two thousand years later, we see a modern day version of the same: a fight to the (proverbial) death -- no draws, no second legs, no away goals. One team will walk out of Rome as champions of Europe. And that team will be legitimately be able to call itself the best -- there are no fluke champions this year, no wacky teams getting on a good run and carrying it through the knock-out rounds, no losers crashing the party of the big boys.
Futbol Club Barcelona. Manchester United Football Club. It's on, my friends. It's on.
There are two basic questions to ask about this final. The first question is: who should win? I mean that in the most normative way possible. In other words, if everything was right about the world, who would win? The second question to ask is: who will win? To answer the first, we have to think about what we want the world to look like. To answer the second, we have to think about the dynamics of the actual football likely to be on display in three days time.
There is no doubt that Barcelona, for all of our sake's, should win this year's Champions League. If ever there was a club that does things the right way, it is Barcelona. The club is owned by the fans, and subjects itself to regular elections. United, on the other hand, are owned by one Malcolm Glazer, who has helped saddle United with a debt of close to a billion dollars. Moreover, Glazer has followed the Asif Zardari model of leadership, by installing all six of his children on the board of directors for the club.
That's not all. Barcelona's team is constructed from the bottom up, the way football clubs are meant to be organized. Of Barca's best fifteen players, a full eight came through its youth ranks (Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Bojan and Messi), and some grew up mere minutes from the Camp Nou. Hell, Xavi used to ride the Barcelona metro to games when he first broke into the team.
By contrast, United's starting eleven is likely to feature a whopping one player (O'Shea) who can claim to have been part of United's youth set up -- this a far cry from the Becks/Nevilles/Giggs/Scholes decade.
But most importantly, it is right that Barcelona should win because they have Lionel Messi, and United have Cristiano Ronaldo. As it so happens, while the pair are perhaps the two best players in the world, they are miles apart in class and temperament. One preens, showboats, complains about and to teammates on the pitch, is selfish and petulant, dives, milks faux-injuries for all they are worth, and is generally a class-A asshole. The other is unassuming and humble, never has a bad word to say about anyone (in public), doesn't bitch about getting physically targeted (Ronaldo might have asked for an ambulance on the pitch if Van Bommel had elbowed his face twice in two games in the Champions League), plays with a smile on his face and a joie de vivre that is refreshing to see in a top-class athlete. United fans may counter and say: it doesn't matter what type of person you are, as long as you produce. My rejoinder would be: it might not matter what type of person you are, but what type of teammate you are certainly does matter. In this regard, it really is no contest.
And if ever one needed evidence of the good vs. evil dynamic between Barca and United, one need not look further than their shirts.
Barcelona, who for more than a century had never allowed the logo of a corporate sponsor on the front of their jersey, signed a deal with Unicef as a sponsor. At the signing of the deal, Joan Laporta said: "For the first time in our more than 107 years of history, our main soccer team will wear an emblem on the front of its shirt. It will not be the brand name of a corporation. It will not be a commercial to promote some kind of business. It will be the logo of 'Unicef'. Through Unicef, we, the people of FC Barcelona, the people of 'Barça', are very proud to donate our shirt to the children of the world who are our present, but especially are our future." And unlike most sponsorship deals in which the club receives money from the sponsor, Barca turned the relationship on its head, and agreed to donate one and a half million Euros a year to the foundation.
United, on the other hand, have a slightly different type of sponsor. Instead of backing an organization that has as its mission statement the "realization of the rights of children and women, as laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women", United proudly wear the logo of AIG on their shirts. AIG for its part played an enormous role in the current financial crisis of the world, and decided that the best way to pay penance for those mistakes was giving themselves bonuses in excess of $150 million. AIG is so popular that it is now choosing to call itself AIU Holdings, hoping everyone kinda-sorta just forgets.
I hope I have proven my case. Barcelona are Good. United are Evil.
That said, there remains one small problem. Like most things that are intrinsically evil (Dick Cheney, Satan), United are hugely competent. So competent, in fact, that it would be fair to call them the best team in Europe for the last three years. I am not just talking about the trophies they have racked up during that time. No, I base that observation on two points.
First, United's squad is exceptionally talented. Vidic and Ferdinand are quite easily the world's best center-back pairing (club or international football). Ronaldo is devastating in open-play, as well as in dead-ball situations (both initiating or finishing the set-piece). Wayne Rooney rivals Andres Iniesta for the "most roles played brilliantly and faithfully, without complaint" award: you can slot him anywhere in front of the back four (and really, you can probably play him at wing-back too) and he'll do the job for you. Patrice Evra may well be the world's best left-back in the world, as he claims. This team is absolutely and positively no joke.
The second point to make is this: United can beat you in many ways. They can play fast, and they can play slow. They can outscore you, or they can ensure you score less than them. They can play wide, and they can play narrow. They can play brilliant passing football, and they can play long-range over-the-top balls to their front three. They can score from open play, and they can score from dead ball situations. The reason for this is simple: United's squad goes 25 deep. Sir Alex Ferguson can mix and match and play horses for courses depending on which team he's playing, where he's playing them, in what competition, and at what stage. The level of talent at United's disposal is quite breathtaking, to be honest. They have no weaknesses.
Barcelona, on the other hand, do have weakness. The only thing worse than Barca's record in taking free-kicks and corners is being subjected to them. They don't have a Torres/Ibra type of target man, where they can just boof it up in the box and hope for the best. And with injuries (Marquez, Gabi Milito) and suspensions (Dani Alves, Abidal), their back four will be a completely manufactured entity, and could possibly feature three players playing out of position (Puyol at right back, Yaya Toure as a center back, and Keita at left back).
Here's the thing though: man for man, I will go to war with Barcelona's first eleven against United's first eleven any day, and twice on this Wednesday. Here's how I see the teams lining up this week:
-------------------------Van der Sar-----------------------
Barce, meanwhile, will look like this (if Iniesta and Henry are fit in time, which they should be):
United are probably going to play very similar to Chelsea in the semis (and United themselves in the semis last year): keep it tight in the back, don't be adventurous, look to exploit Barca on the counter, try to score from a set-piece, and otherwise play it safe and not give Barca any space. But here's the thing: as a Barca fan, United's midfield is simply not as physically imposing at Chelsea's was. I'd rather play against Park/Anderson/Carrick than Essien/Ballack/Lampard, if that's ok with you. Barca struggle against physical teams, but United are not a physical team on the defensive side of the pitch. This should allow Xavi and Iniesta to weave their magic, and that's where Barca's threats really emanate from.
I also expect Messi to be played as a false no. 9, similar to his role against Real a few weeks ago. In that game, Barca effectively made Eto'o a winger, and gave Messi more space to operate (and take advantage of his very underrated passing ability). All this talk about Evra stopping Messi last year is not only nonsense, but also besides the point: he may not even be matched up against him this year.
Though the back four will have an improvised look to it, I have no doubt Pep has been working on them in training. And if Pep lines the back four up the way we're all anticipating, it will at least give Barca a more physical and imposing back four to deal with set-pieces. The one weak link in the team might be Busquets who, let's face it, looked out of his depth against Chelsea. But I'm hoping that experience did him good, and that he's ready to step up.
United are an awesome team. I respect them enormously. They have been the best team in Europe for the last three years. I repeat: they have been the best team in Europe for the last three years.
But this is Barcelona's season. I have said it before, and I will say it again. This year, they are a team of destiny. It is simply meant to be. It is simply meant to be that Barcelona win the treble for the first time in Spanish football history. It is simply meant to be that Lionel Messi shines brightly on the biggest stage in world football. It is simply meant to be that Xavi and Iniesta continue to show the world that there's no finer midfield pairing in the world, whether they play for Spain or Barca. It is simply meant to be that Pep Guardiola, that favorite son of the city and the club, in his first season as manager after being a ball-boy, supporter, player, and captain of the team in the last two decades, conquers all before him. It is simply meant to be that in this season of dreams, in this season of magic and wizardry and one-touch one-pass football, that Barcelona, the club that is Mes Que Un Club -- more than a club -- summit the European mountain.
Receive, pass, offer. Receive, pass, offer. It is the Barcelona way, and this year, it is to be rewarded.
Prediction: Barcelona win 2-1.
UPDATE: Charming fellow, that Roy Keane. From Sid Lowe's piece on Pique:
Roy Keane, meanwhile, terrified him. On one occasion, Piqué's mobile started vibrating in the dressing room. Keane went ballistic, ripping clothes from their pegs, rummaging in pockets, screaming that he would kill the man responsible. Luckily, it rang off before Keane reached Piqué's trousers. A relieved man, he told friends he had never felt closer to death.UPDATE II: Man, I love Xavi. He's so -- what's the word? -- earnest in his dismissiveness. Here he is on the Messi-Ronaldo debate, which he doesn't think is a debate at all.
It is the debate that will not go away in the build-up to the Champions League final but the Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernández has refused to compare Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because, he says, the Portuguese winger would come off so badly.
Xavi revealed that, as well as Ronaldo, he is a big admirer of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard but insisted that Messi is simply untouchable. "Messi is the best player in the world by a distance, he's the No1," Xavi said. "There is nobody at all like him. I don't want to compare him to anyone because it'll just damage the other player if I do. For me Messi is easily the best.
"All due respect to Ronaldo and all the other great players on the world stage but Messi is proving that he is better than everyone else. The world can see that he's the boss. I've never seen anything like it. In a game, in the training sessions, never. I wouldn't swap him for any player."