Rarely has the theme for the UEFA Champions League been so appropriate.
"The masters," proclaims the tune synonymous with Europe's premier club competition. "The best. The biggest. The champions."
When Manchester United and Barcelona face off in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on May 27, it would be hard to find any soccer fan willing to contest the fact that they are the finest club teams on the planet. Barring an unforeseen breakdown from either side over the next three weeks, United and Barca each could have the chance to complete one of the best campaigns of all time in Rome.
Just days away from clinching a third straight English Premier League title, United wielded such a degree of dominance over the EPL that the country's six-strong player of the year short list contained five Red Devils. United has claimed three trophies so far, winning the season-opening Community Shield, the Club World Cup and the Carling Cup before losing in the semifinals of the FA Cup.
Sir Alex Ferguson was given a knighthood following United's "treble" campaign in 1999 when the Red Devils won the EPL, Champions League and FA Cup. This year promises to be even better for the club.
"We should have won the Champions League more times than we have," Ferguson said. "This is another opportunity for us to do so.
"I think we have the quality, the energy and the ambition to do it. It's a hungry team, and when the chips are down they don't let me down.
"We have had a great season already, but I know none of the players will be satisfied until we finish it off with something special."
Barcelona has been similarly rampant in Spain. A devastating 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid last Saturday all but clinched the title in La Liga. And if the Catalans can beat Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 13 and win the Champions League a fortnight later, they would complete a storied treble of their own.
Barca's failure to score against Chelsea until the dying seconds of its semifinal victory will lead some to suggest that it is ill-equipped to deal with English opposition. Certainly, the defensive stability of United, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic at its core, could blunt the attacking brilliance of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry.
However, there's no dismissing the 100 goals in league action this year by Barcelona, which has the chance to match a 19-year-old record set by Real Madrid if it can reach 107 in its last four La Liga games.
"I have never lost faith in my team," said Guardiola, moments after Wednesday's nail-biting semifinal win. "I have always said this team is capable of great things, and now we have the chance to prove it."
In Messi, Barcelona has a player who is capable of turning any game on its head, even though he was quiet in the two legs against Chelsea. But let's not forget that United has its own playmaking superstar in World Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. He has not quite scaled the remarkable heights he attained last season, yet Ronaldo stood tall in the semifinal victory over Arsenal with two superb goals in the second leg to put the Gunners away.
While Ronaldo vs. Messi is one potentially decisive battle, the contest between the two coaches is just as intriguing.
Ferguson has seen it all in his 25 years at United, and no other manager comes with the level of experience and know-how of the wily old Scot. On the other side is Guardiola, a former Barcelona midfield star who is in his first season as coach. He epitomizes the passion of Barcelona like no other, having started out as an apprentice who cleaned the boots of first-team stars in his teenage years.
Guardiola has recreated the unity in the Catalan side that was lost toward the end of Frank Rijkaard's spell in charge, and he has managed to mold an incredibly gifted group of players into a cohesive and vibrant unit. The Champions League final will be the ultimate test of his credentials and those of his players, with defending champion United likely to be a heavy favorite.
European soccer has its dream final and, for the victors, the culmination of a dream season.
- Manchester United
- English Premier League