Barcelona v Man Utd preview
European glory beckons at Wembley as the champions of Spain and England collide in one of the most eagerly-awaited finals in history.
Last Updated: 29/05/11 10:32am
European glory beckons at Wembley on Saturday as the champions of Spain and England collide in one of the most eagerly-awaited finals in history.
Barcelona and Manchester United could already lay claim to being the two finest sides on the continent before this season, having each made it through to the final twice in the past five years.
They have confirmed their standing at the top of the game this term after dominating their respective domestic competitions, whilst progressing to this stage of the UEFA Champions League with little difficulty.
Barcelona cruised through a group also containing FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, before overturning a first-leg deficit to knock out Arsenal in the last 16.
An emphatic victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in the quarter-finals was followed by an eagerly-awaited tie against rivals Real Madrid, when Lionel Messi's brilliance shone out in an otherwise fiery and controversial affair.
Manchester United came out ahead of Valencia, Rangers and Bursaspor in their group and were rewarded with a clash against Marseille in the next round.
Having beaten the Frenchmen and then held off the challenge of Chelsea in the quarter-finals, United hammered Schalke to take their place in this weekend's showpiece.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men also clinched the Premier League title in impressive fashion, while Barcelona collected a staggering 96 points in winning the Primera Liga.
But even though both sides have had successful seasons, it is the outcome of Saturday's final in London that will determine how fondly the 2010/11 campaign is remembered by each set of supporters.
Barcelona start as favourites not only because of their excellent results but also because they possess serious star quality, with Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi ranked as the top three players in the world at the end-of-year Ballon d'Or awards.
These three can combine to devastating effect and a number of scintillating performances in recent times have fuelled discussion about whether Barca are the best club team of all time.
The same has not been said of United, with some observers suggesting Ferguson's current crop lacks the class of previous vintages.
Such criticism has been roundly dismissed by everyone at Old Trafford, and while the Red Devils may not have quite the same sort of buccaneering style as Barca they have shown an ability to overcome any obstacle they face.
United have found a formidable formula of defensive solidity, speed and intensity in midfield and a cutting edge up front provided by the dual talents of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
They also have another key weapon in the shape of manager Ferguson, vastly more experienced than counterpart Pep Guardiola and confident that he has hatched a plan to get the better of Barca.
United were not able to come out on top when they met the same opponents in the 2009 final, which Barcelona won 2-0, but will have happier memories of the last time they played a European Cup final at Wembley in 1968 and beat Benfica.
Spectators around the world will hope for a match full of attacking endeavour rather than cautious containment, and it will be the job of Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai to keep order.
United will nevertheless be aware of the importance of frustrating a Barca side that invariably dominates possession, and the last line of defence will be provided by goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, playing in his final match before retirement at the age of 40.
The veteran Dutchman will be shielded by a back four comprising Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, captain Nemanja Vidic and one of the Brazilian twins, perhaps Fabio.
Ferguson has a lot of options in midfield but is expected to go with Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-sung, although Nani, Anderson and Darren Fletcher will also hope to feature.
Hernandez is set to cap a terrific debut season with a place in the forward line beside Rooney, as United look to exploit the one possible weakness in Barca's line-up, their defence.
Like United, Barca have all their key players fit after resting the majority of their main men in the final two rounds of domestic matches.
Eric Abidal has been in action, though, after returning from two months out following surgery on a liver tumour.
The French left-back is now in contention to play at Wembley alongside fellow defenders Dani Alves, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, although versatile Argentine Javier Mascherano is another alternative if Guardiola decides he does not want to risk Abidal and Puyol - who has also had a spell out recently.
Sergio Busquets will play the holding role in midfield that allows Xavi and Iniesta freedom to express themselves, while Messi will be supported in attack by David Villa and Pedro.