Barcelona, United on course for 2009 final rematch

With both Barcelona and Manchester United protecting 2-0 leads,

a rematch of the 2009 Champions League final is looming at Wembley

Stadium later this month.

But ensuring they each have a chance to win a fourth European

title will require the semifinalists to successfully negotiate

second leg matches that are shaping up to be contrasting

occasions.

On Tuesday, Barcelona will be hosting a Real Madrid side – and

particularly coach Jose Mourinho – still seething following an

ill-tempered loss at home last week.

A raging Mourinho suggested there is a conspiracy to help

Barcelona go through – one of the inflammatory moments last

Wednesday that led to Madrid being hit with five UEFA charges.

Barcelona, though, is also under investigation after an angry

scuffle between players and officials from both teams at halftime

resulted in substitute goalkeeper Jose Pinto being sent off.

It means the repercussions from the first leg that scarred the

reputations of both sides could still be felt long after the final

whistle goes at the Camp Nou.

”We try our best not to let all of this tension affect us,”

Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said Monday. ”It’s almost

impossible.”

Madrid has already started stoking the tensions as it tries to

overturn a 2-0 deficit and enable Mourinho to reach a second

successive final, having triumphed with Inter Milan against Bayern

Munich last May.

Madrid has posted a video on its website calling on Belgian

referee Frank de Bleeckere to avoid ”falling for Barcelona’s

theater.”

”We believe we can do it,” midfielder Kaka said. ”Madrid can

never stop fighting.”

Xavi is fully aware of the firepower at Madrid’s disposal and

the need to frustrate its forward line, including Cristiano Ronaldo

who was rested in Madrid’s 3-2 loss on Saturday.

”The key will be to dominate the ball,” Xavi said. ”They will

go looking for a result because up to now they’ve lived off the

counterattack, they’ve been ultra-defensive. But we’re also ready

in case they tighten up on us.”

Barcelona has been buoyed by the news that defender Eric Abidal

is available for selection for the first time since surgery to

remove a liver tumor almost two months ago.

Midfielder Andres Iniesta is also set to feature after a leg

injury ruled him out of last week’s first leg, when Lionel Messi

scored both goals, and Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Real Sociedad.

Despite a first league loss in seven months, Pep Guardiola’s

side still enjoys an eight-point lead over Madrid with four games

to go after the second-placed side also lost to Zaragoza having

rested several players.

Losing, though, in the Champions League is something that rarely

happens after first winning away.

Only twice have teams overturned first-leg losses at home: Inter

Milan earlier this season against Bayern Munich and Ajax against

Panathinaikos in 1996.

Manchester United, which lost to Barcelona in the 2009 final, is

certainly confident that Schalke’s longest run in the competition

will end at Old Trafford after its 2-0 collapse at home.

Key players including striker Wayne Rooney are set to be rested

for Sunday’s Premier League match against Chelsea, which is just

three points behind United with three matches to go after the

leaders lost at Arsenal on Sunday.

”I will make some changes on Wednesday without question,”

United manager Alex Ferguson said. ”I will bring Paul Scholes back

in, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen.

”We’ll need to do that but I will probably keep my experienced

players at the back. We have a big week ahead … two massive

games, so we will regroup and freshen it up.”

History does not favor United on Wednesday, with the three-time

European champions losing all four previous knockout phase matches

against German sides.

Recent form, though, provides more encouragement: Schalke has

lost three successive matches and was routed 4-1 by Bayern Munich

on Saturday.

”It’s never good to lose, but in principle we have nothing to

play for in the Bundesliga,” midfielder Alex Baumjohann said. ”We

can’t hide our heads in the sand, we have to repeat the

performances we had before. You always believe, as long as it’s not

finally decided (against United).

”But a lot of things have to come together for us to achieve a

miracle. But if we don’t believe in it, we might as well not fly to

England.”

Their chances, though, of returning to England for the May 28

final at Wembley are slim.