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ESW SPECIAL REPORT...CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL IN LONDON!
by Bruce Marshall, Editor-in-Chief, European Soccer Weekly




It?s appropriate, don?t you think?



We?re talking about Barcelona and Manchester United squaring off for the UEFA Champions League crown this Saturday at Wembley Stadium. Appropriate because these have been the two dominant teams on the continent during this campaign. Appropriate because both have excelled in this competition in recent campaigns, combining to win 3 of the last 5 Champs League titles. Appropriate because this is a much-awaited rematch from their last date with one another in this very same match two years ago at Rome?s Stadio Olimpico, won by Barca 2-0, which avenged a defeat at the semifinal stage of this competition the year before vs. Man U. Appropriate because each of these proud sides owns three European Cup/Champs League trophies, with the winner to move into a tie with Bayern Munich and Ajax Amsterdam for fourth place on the all-time title lost. Appropriate because Wembley (at least in its former version) was the site of past European glories for both sides, with George Best?s Man U winning its first European Cup in 1968 at this venue, beating Eusebio?s Benfica 4-1 in overtime, while Barca?s ?Dream Team? for Johan Cruyff used Ronald Koeman?s magical free kick at the death of overtime (in the 119th minute) to see off Sampdoria by a 1-0 count in 1992.



Appropriate, mostly, because there is no argument about which teams should or shouldn?t be the final, as has been the case with various controversies in earlier rounds the past few years.



Indeed, it?s appropriate, and completely fitting, that Barcelona and Manchester United will be facing off for this season?s top club honor in Europe.



Now, what is going to happen?



THE CASE FOR MAN UNITED




More than anything else, Man U supporters will remind you of one thing:



This isn?t 2009.



Of course, past results are no foolproof indicator of future rematches, but Red Devil supporters still don?t want too many parallels drawn between now and two years ago, when Barca won rather handily by a 2-0 count in Rome.



And they might have a point.



At its best, the current edition was more efficient than two years ago. Perhaps that?s because Cristiano Ronaldo is now long gone to Real Madrid. Too often, critics claim, the attack became centered upon the Portuguese star during his days at Old Trafford. Much of the time, the ball was at Cristiano Ronaldo?s feet, and as wondrous as he could be at times, the coordination in the attack would often disappear if he were muted or otherwise restricted.



A main difference this season from two years ago was the impact of ?Chicharito? also known as Javier Hernandez, the Mexican import from Guadalajara who first made a global impact at last summer?s World Cup. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo, Chicharito?s ability to play effectively off the ball created different dimensions for the Man U attack and allowed Sir Alex Ferguson to utilize two strikers (along with Wayne Rooney) in European action, something Ferguson had been mostly reluctant to do in the past despite his frequent preference for 4-4-2 alignments. Whereas a year ago Ferguson would have been likely to utilize Rooney as a lone central striker in more if a 4-3-2-1 along with a deeper-lying central midfield trio in hopes of shifting the battle to the flanks, he can now effectively pair Chicharito and Rooney, with the latter in a deeper-lying role. Hernandez? ability to draw attention has created opportunities for Rooney to operate in clearer space and provide a wider lane for Roo?s bull-like rushes into the penalty area. The emergence of Brazilian right back Rafael has also lent some extra bite to the backline, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand still providing a robust combination in central defense.



It is Man U?s hope that Chichirito?s presence will require Barcelona to be a bit less adventurous and abandon its higher defensive line, creating more of a stalemate at midfield. From there, Rooney and/or Hernandez are more likely to create the sort of match-changing moments that could turn proceedings in Man U?s favor.



THE CASE FOR BARCELONA




Whereas Man U might want everyone to forget about 2009, Barcelona supporters suggest the dynamics are not too much different than 24 months ago in Rome. That, Man U is really no better-equipped to disrupt the devastating Barca midfield axis centered upon the almost telepathic understanding between longtime stalwarts Xavi and Iniesta and the rest of the Camp Nou strike force than it was at Stadio Olimpico in 2009.



Indeed, supporters of the Azulgrana will suggest that the attacking options are richer than ever for Barca thanks to the summer addition of David Villa from Valencia. With Villa and Pedro attacking from the flanks in Pep Guardiola?s 4-1-2-3, Barca has the ability to stretch the width of the field in the attack zone and create extra space for the incomparable Lionel Messi, who scored almost one-third (50) of Barca?s goals in all competitions this season and cut open the Man U defense for the clinching goal two years ago. Compared to last season, at least, this looks like a more irresistible Barcelona offensive machine with Villa a vast improvement upon the departed Zlatan Ibrahimovich, who famously disappeared in the UCL semifinal setback against Inter a year ago before his move to AC Milan. Meanwhile, many European observers believe the Barcelona defense is vastly underrated, and that now-healthy Carlos Puyol and ex-Man U charge Gerard Pique comprise one of Europe?s best defensive blockades in front of capable GK Victor Valdes, as they did in last summer?s World Cup in front of Iker Casillas.



Some maintain that last year?s loss to Jose Mourinho?s Inter provided the road map to upsetting the Barca applecart, but the San Siro crew presented rare awkward matchups. Inter owned a force in the center of the pitch, Wesley Sneijder, who could disrupt the possession game that Barca likes to employ, while having the sort of components such as Sniejder and Javier Zanetti to knock the smaller Messi off of his pins, and a lineup comprised of eight athletic South Americans who were able to combine speed and brute strength to neutralize the Barcelona weaponry. Can Man United hope to do the same?



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