Wembley not necessarily advantageous
Home field advantage is considered so massive in soccer that that most knockout competition "games" are actually twice, once at each team's home, with away goals used as a tiebreaker. One-off finals are held at neutral locations, chosen years in advance, and it is rare that a team gets a chance to win a title on its home turf.
This coming Saturday, Manchester United will have that chance. They will face off against Barcelona on English soil at Wembley Stadium. No, it’s not their normal stomping grounds of Old Trafford, and Manchester is some 180 miles to the north of the capital. But most folks would venture that the chance for an English team to win a title at their national stadium would be a massive advantage.
Unfortunately, it's not. And the reasons why have nothing at all to do with England, and everything to do with the direction the modern game has taken.
The very thing that has made the Champions League so massive has also made it sterile. That would be money. The Champions League isn't the wealthiest competition on the planet by accident - it made those billions from advertisers, broadcasters and corporate sponsors. The finals are the time when some of those bills come due.
In the past, finals would have been attended exclusively by fans of the teams. No more. A majority of spectators at the final will be well-heeled folks from "hospitality," a fancy way of saying "corporate sponsors." Many of these spectators are there to see a big event, not to cheer for a particular team. Now, each team receives 25,000 seats in an allocation, and can dole them out as they wish. At Wembley, this means 40,000 seats will be filled by hospitality, members of the media and UEFA folks.
As events like the World Cup, the European Championships and the Champions League final have grown in stature, we've seen a deminished role for the hard-core fan, those who are often priced out of the games by ticket costs that can easily reach into the thousands of dollars.
The second is the field itself: It is big, wide and notoriously choppy. Since the new stadium opened, its groundskeepers have come under heavy fire for failing to maintain an acceptable playing surface, relaying the sod over and over again after seeing the field fall apart after as little as 10 minutes of play. It makes passing treacherous and cutting risky: more than one player has come away from the stadium with turned ankles or twisted knees.
The size of the pitch also favors Barcelona, whose own Camp Nou is a massive, expansive spread that allows them distance to pass and tire out opponents. The Catalans will be used to the vast spaces and will be eager to exploit the lanes that can be opened up as a result.
Warren Barton surveyed the field for us last night. "It's in perfect shape," he said. "I think it might suit Barcelona because the grass is very short and the ball will move very quickly on it. One thing I am concerned about is players cutting; they're going to need to choose the right cleats because with all the rain, it can be very slippery."
Manchester United have to be hoping for more rain — which would play right into their hands — but so far the forecast for London has rain early in the day and then clearing out.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.