The biggest game in sport
It's the single biggest game in world sport. Bigger than the World Cup finals, as tense as any Super Bowl, and more star-filled than any other game on the planet. The Champions League final kicks off next Saturday live from London's Wembley stadium with a mouthwatering match-up of two of the most storied names in all sport as Manchester United host Barcelona. (FOX, 2 p.m. ET)
It's a match that will likely be as closely watched as the World Cup finals because this one boasts the best players from around the planet on two clubs that have transcended their countries' borders.
Professional club soccer has eclipsed the national team game as the pinnacle of the sport. At one time nations such as Brazil and Italy were able to present the best possible product in the game, but since the emergence of England's Premier League in 1992 and the re-jiggering of the European Cup into today’s Champions League, it is the clubs who push the edge of the sport.
The reasons are simple: The elite clubs, freed from the nationality restrictions that apply to World Cup squads, are free to cherry-pick from the best players around the globe. And they have the cash to spend freely, with players bought and sold for eye-popping sums that now approach $100 million a shot.
Massive amounts of money now flow into these leagues - the Premier League alone reported $3.4 billion in revenue last year - with the result that the big clubs have become very much like the teams Americans know in the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. They are smartly-run, heavily marketed and followed worldwide. In fact, Manchester United have leveraged a partnership with the New York Yankees to become enormously popular throughout North America and Asia while Barcelona, followed rabidly in the Americas and across Europe, are playing a bit of catch-up.
Bold-faced names litter these rosters: Barcelona alone have eight men who won the 2010 World Cup with Spain; United have international superstars Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. Barcelona, with its famous academy, has been able to develop almost all of its core talent; United now relies heavily on imports, with even its English stars having been developed at other clubs.
Both teams enter the crucible already crowned champions at home. Barcelona were runaway winners in Spain after putting arch-rivals Real Madrid to the sword in an historic four-game, cross-competition series that took the Catalans to this final, while Manchester United were forced to repel a late challenge from reigning champions Chelsea but sewed up the Premier League crown with a week to spare.
There's some history here as well, and it does not favor the English. Two years ago, Manchester United were dispatched with shocking ease when they met Barcelona in Rome. Then, Barcelona won its third title at the expense of the Red Devils, 2-0 behind goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. The result of the match was unsurprising; the facility with which Barcelona accomplished it was, for that United side was a glittering one, boasting Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo as well as Rooney.
Tevez and Ronaldo have moved on to greener pastures (with rivals Manchester City and Spain’s Real Madrid, respectively), and this United side is widely considered to be a sub-standard if efficient team. In fact, United's 80 points were the lowest total from a champions since 2000-01 (another 80-point title for United).
Barcelona, in contrast, is considered the world's best club and has made a strong case for being the greatest club of this generation. With the consensus best player in Messi and World Cup winners such as Xavi, David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol around him, Barcelona have proven extremely difficult to beat. In fact, they have only dropped one game in Europe this year, and that seems to have been a fluke: a shock 2-1 loss to Arsenal in London this February.
While United will be studying that game tape, they're unlikely to learn much. That night saw Messi have a rare off game, missing several chances in the first half that would have buried the Gunners. What the game did show is that if keeper Victor Valdes is put under consistent pressure, Barcelona can concede goals.
That said, Barcelona's game plan rarely allows its opponents to get the ball. Their passing game is so skilled and so intricate they can control possession for as much as 80 percent of the play.
What United do have is the best manager in the game in Sir Alex Ferguson and the advantage of playing on what is de-facto home turf. Wembley has seen some classic European finals, and United will be surely looking to channel their famous 1968 win that gave England its first ever European Cup. Then, a classic United side, boasting Bobby Charlton, George Best, Nobby Stiles and Brian Kidd, cruised past Benfica 4-1 despite seeing their greatest player of the era, Denis Law, out of the game due to a knee injury.
Today's United looks remarkably similar. It boasts three great strikers in Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney and "Chicharito" as well as stout defense, with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand lining in front of keeper Edwin van der Sar. And, as Matt Busby did with his 1968 winner, United likes to show a modified 4-3-3 that allows players like Nani and Antonio Valencia to get wide, dropping Rooney back to provide deep service.
But Barcelona is a tough nut to crack. Fouling them to disrupt play - as Real Madrid attempted to do in their Champions League semifinals - doesn't work. Nor does trying to match them step-for-step, as Barcelona have one of the fastest, fittest squads and can play the game at a blistering pace. Containing Messi is always in the opposition's game plan, but the little Argentine is such an improvisational genius that it rarely works. The fact is that clubs have to hope they can catch this team on a bad day and then get a little lucky on top of that.
United will certainly not roll over for this Spanish juggernaut, but they will start as the underdogs despite playing at home. If Ferguson can find a way to this trophy, it will surely be the capstone in what has already been an amazing tenure at this mighty club.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.