Fans gather early for Champions League final
Thousands of fans spilled up Wembley Way on Saturday with two hours still to go before Barcelona and Manchester United meet in what United manager Alex Ferguson has said could be the best Champions League final of the last 10 years.
The trickle of supporters that began before midday became a flood, with Barcelona fans so far outnumbering their Manchester United counterparts - who are likely to arrive later since they know their way to the north London stadium well having been regular visitors over Ferguson's 25-year tenure.
Dozens of Mexicans made the trip to see their star, Javier ''Chicharito'' Hernandez, play for United. Many dressed in the green jersey of the Mexico national team with his No. 14 number on the back.
''We wanted to see our great star of Mexican football play live,'' said 47-year-old Alfonso Gonzalez, who completed his journey from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the 90,000-seat stadium on the London Underground with six of his compatriots.
Other Mexicans wore wrestling masks and sombreros as they made their way along Wembley Way as light rain gave way to sunshine over the famous stadium, rebuilt since both United and Barcelona won the first of their three European Cup titles there.
''He's our national hero, a great guy, with a lot of charisma,'' said Cesar Gonzalez, a Toluca supporter who bought his ticket on the Internet.
Commentators widely agree that a triumph for Barcelona would seal its place alongside football's truly great sides, but coach Pep Guardiola is making no such claims for his team and its pinpoint accurate passing.
Speaking on the eve of the match, Guardiola said only hindsight would reveal whether his team deserved such plaudits.
''It's like a great film,'' the former Barcelona midfielder said. ''You need time to pass before you can say if it is good.''
Guardiola has already led a team including Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta to nine titles in his three years in charge, with three straight Spanish league titles and the 2009 Champions League final win over Manchester United most notable.
But self-effacing and steeped in Barcelona history, Guardiola gives all the credit to his players, those working in the background at the Catalan club, and the supporters who fill the 99,000-seat Camp Nou stadium every home game.
''I didn't get nine titles,'' Guardiola said. ''It's the team, the club, the structure, all the staff. If we didn't have these people, we wouldn't get these titles. The important thing is the club.''
Such is the fashion in which Messi and his teammates routinely frustrate and dismantle opponents that bookmakers rate United as a big underdog despite it reaching a third final in four seasons.
''The success both teams have had in the past decade has been enormous,'' Ferguson said. ''It really could be the best final of the decade. The attraction of two teams with such history is obvious. Anything could happen in this game.''
The coaches are agreed on one thing: each team will improve on its performance in 2009, when United was rattled by Barcelona's early goal and went down 2-0.
''I'm very happy with winning in Rome but let's be honest,'' said Guardiola, who as a player helped Barcelona win its first title in 1992. ''We have to play better than we played in Rome and I have told my players that repeatedly.''
Barcelona has done that for much of this season, with the likes of world champions Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets helping their team secure more than two-thirds possession in this season's Champions League.
''Obviously fans want us to be faithful to the way we play, to our philosophy, and we will be,'' goalkeeper Victor Valdes said. ''If we are to win, that's the only way we can get there.''
Stuart Condie can be reached at http://twitter.com/condieinlondon