For Barcelona, the Champions League final offers more than the chance to collect another glittering title – it’s the opportunity to further advance its claims as football’s greatest club side.
Premier League champion Manchester United is a suitably illustrious opponent in Saturday’s final at Wembley for a Barcelona team seeking to justify its place alongside the great Real Madrid sides of the 1950s and ’60s.
Ominously for United, Barcelona has improved significantly since beating the English side in the 2009 final.
Having won the title in a penalty shootout against Chelsea a year earlier, United was expected to seriously challenge Barcelona in a free-flowing final in Rome but the Spanish side barely had to move out of second gear to secure a 2-0 win.
Powered by the goals of Lionel Messi and inspired by the midfield guile of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona has clinched a third straight Spanish title this season and typically taken two-thirds possession in its Champions League matches against supposedly Europe’s strongest sides.
Still, Manchester United has extra motivation after its meek performance in 2009 and is on a high after breaking Liverpool’s 21-year-old record to clinch a 19th English championship.
”You never get bored of celebrations like this,” United striker Wayne Rooney said. ”This is what you play football to do, to win trophies and medals.”
Manchester United also has history at Wembley.
As well as the multiple domestic cups it won there, United won the 1968 European Cup – its first – at the north London stadium with a 4-1 win over Benfica.
United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar is set to retire after the match and wants his teammates to further strengthen that connection.
”Manchester United is the biggest club in the world,” Van der Sar said. ”Now we have to get that trophy.”
United has few injury concerns ahead of the match, with midfielder Darren Fletcher having played in Sunday’s final league match against Blackpool. Fletcher, who missed the 2009 final because of suspension, had played just once in two months before Sunday’s 4-2 win.
Captain Nemanja Vidic was replaced late in the game with a slight limp but should be fit to play alongside regular defensive colleague Rio Ferdinand.
Barcelona completed its third straight Spanish title-winning season in style Saturday when a team composed mostly of reserve players came from a goal behind to beat Malaga 3-1.
Messi was among seven regulars left out by coach Pep Guardiola but Bojan Krkic, Ibrahim Afellay and Marc Bartra made their case for inclusion in the squad for Wembley with the goals that secured a record 14th win from 18 away games.
Barcelona finished with three fewer points than last season, but still won by four points from a Real Madrid side coached by Jose Mourinho and driven by a Spanish-record 53 goals from Cristiano Ronaldo.
”We’re not here to grade ourselves,” Guardiola said. ”We’re here to play a game and that’s been impeccable. Last year we had 99 points and this year 96 – it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Like United, Barcelona also has history at Wembley.
With Real Madrid having won the title six times by the time Barcelona made the 1992 final, the Catalan club finally clinched the trophy it desperately craved with a 1-0 win over Sampdoria.
Johan Cruyff’s ”Dream Team” of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov, Ronald Koeman and Guardiola had to wait until the 21st minute of extra time for the goal that would end the wait.
Koeman had already had one of his trademark free kicks saved when he lined up a 25-meter (yard) shot just right of center. But the Netherlands sweeper coolly curled a low left-foot shot around the defensive wall and in at the far post.
Barcelona now has a team of players capable of such feats and is rated a 21-20 favorite by British bookmakers to win the title. United is a 3-1 outsider.