Monday, May 25, 2009

A Classic Final Awaits

The whole world is waiting with baited breath for Sir Alex Ferguson and Josep Guardiola, as they are going to lead out their sides on the biggest stage of European Club football this Wednesday. Their teams have already enchanted the world throughout this season and all their players are now ready to pull on their shirts one more time to capture European glory.

On 27th may 2009, the 54th European Cup final will be played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. This year, it will be contested between defending champions Manchester United and Spanish giants Barcelona. United are bidding to become the first team since Milan in 1990, to defend their title successfully. They are also the first team since Juventus in 1998, to reach two consecutive European Cup finals. On the other hand, Barca have won the European Cup twice as opposed to United’s three. They last won the European Cup in 2006, when they beat Arsenal 2-1, in Paris.

Manchester United in its road to Rome have seen off the likes of Villareal, Inter and Arsenal. This year’s team has been called as the best-ever team of all-time in United’s history. They have already won the Club World Cup, Premier League and League Cup this season. The only tournament where they have been unsuccessful is the FA Cup, in which Everton beat a weakened United squad on penalties.

United have endured a memorable season, in which they have equalled Liverpool’s 18 domestic titles. Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary manger of the Manchester United, has said time and again that criticism of United’s earlier failed European conquests is genuine and that makes it imperative for them to take their opportunities, as they come. They will have a full squad at their disposal except the suspended Darren Fletcher, while talismanic defender Rio Ferdinand is yet to prove his full fitness.

In Spain, Barcelona have themselves had a great season and drawn comparisons with the Johann Cruyff-led side of the 1970s. They have won the Primera Liga and Copa Del Rey or the King’s Cup, as the Spanish domestic cup competition is known. They have scored a record number of goals in a season and have been lauded for their beautiful football all around the world. Barcelona have never won the League, Cup and European Cup in the same season.

Their road to Rome was easy till the semis as they brushed aside Lyon and Bayern in the knockout phase. But in the semis, they faced a determined Chelsea side, which resulted in a goalless draw at home. In the second leg, Chelsea took the lead through a wonder strike by Essien. But after that there were a series of controversial decisions by the Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo, which lead to three clear penalty decisions going against Chelsea and Barca’s Eric Abidal was wrongly sent off. Iniesta scored a 93rd minute equaliser, to send Barca through to the final on the away goals rule. In the final, Barca will miss defenders Dani Alves and Abidal through suspension and Marquez through injury. Both Iniesta and Henry will undergo late fitness tests before the final.

The final is also being billed as the battle between two of the world’s finest players- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the current World and European Player of the Year and is the joint top-scorer in the Premier League with Nicolas Anelka of Chelsea this season. After an injury at the start of the season, due to which he was out for the first two months, he has come back strongly, recapturing his form of last season.

On the other hand, Messi has had a dream season this year, scoring and creating goals at will. He has often been compared to the Argentinean legend Diego Maradona, who is now the manager of the Argentinean national team. While Messi’s ball control is god-like, Ronaldo himself is a wonderful dribbler. He is also deadly in dead ball situations, and is world-renowned for his free kicks.

There is shadow of a doubt over Ronaldo’s future, as Real Madrid have reportedly renewed their interest in him, and he is one of their top transfer targets in the summer. But there are no such problems with Messi, as he has time and again made it clear that he is fully committed to Barca, the club with which he has been since he was a kid.

While Ronaldo is criticised in some quarters for going down too easily when he’s tackled by defenders, Messi is yet to prove himself in a big-game environment like the Champions League final, as he missed out due to injury in 2006, when Barca beat Arsenal. Last year, United beat Barca in the semi final, but both Messi and Ronaldo couldn’t do much as the tie was sealed by a brilliant strike by Paul Scholes.

Except Ronaldo and Messi, both the teams have world-class players who have it in them to win games single-handedly. For United, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez are excellent strikers, who also have the ability to create chances out of nothing. In Carrick and Anderson, they have top-level ball-winning midfielders who pass the ball really well. In the defence, Ferdinand and Vidic are one of the top defensive pairings in the world who are ably supported by the Dutch keeper, Van Der Sar.

Barcelona themselves look very threatening on paper. Etoo is their goal machine. He has scored a record number of goals this season. If Henry will be fit, he will be another threat to the United defence. In the midfield, Xavi n Iniesta, if the latter plays, rarely give the ball away and their passing is absolutely brilliant. Yaya Toure, is a no-compromising, hard, defensive midfielder, who will make life tough for United’s attackers.

Though Barca’s defence is weakened, they still have formidable defenders in Gerard Pique, who is an ex-Manchester United player and Carles Puyol. Though their goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, is a bit eccentric, he’s still a world-class shot stopper.
Both teams’ managers are vastly different in experience. While Sir Alex Ferguson is in his 23rd season in charge at United, this is the first taste of football management for Guardiola, who was appointed at the start of this season. Sir Alex has won 11 league titles, 8 domestic cups and 3 European trophies with United. Under his wings, players like Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville have come through the ranks and have went on to become legends in their own right. He has knocked off Liverpool at the top of the perch of English football and has been the longest serving manager in the world.

On the other hand, Guardiola was a successful footballer, who played for Spain and Barcelona. He won the European Cup in 1992 with Barcelona and is trying to be a part of a select-band of people who have won the Champions League both as a player and as a manager. He became the manager this season, after Frank Rijkaard was sacked after two seasons without any silverware. In the days leading up to the final, both managers have showed respect for their opponent teams.

This European final is one of the most awaited-finals in recent history. Both teams play wonderful, attacking football and currently, are the best club sides in the world. With both teams in top form, a classic match is awaited. Whoever wins the match, football will be the ultimate winner.

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