The game of the season is nearly upon us and the eyes of the soccer world will be transfixed upon Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
It is in every way the dream final, with two of the most popular and famous teams squaring off for the most meaningful prize in club soccer.
In any year that does not have a World Cup or European Championship, this is the showpiece event, and this year’s rendition is a true soccer feast.
Barcelona is a strong favorite but Manchester United has shown countless times that it can never be written off. Keys to winning the 2011 Champions League final follow:
1. The golden Flea
What was once a debate about the best player in the world is now a statement of fact. Lionel Messi, nicknamed the Flea, has established himself as soccer’s biggest star and furthering his reputation by leading Barca to European glory is the latest item on his career checklist.
Stopping Messi is United’s biggest headache, and there are rumors that Rio Ferdinand will be tasked with shadowing the little man and trying to staunch the effectiveness of a player who blew United away in the final two years ago.
Yet although Ferdinand is a world-class defender, his stamina and mobility would be severely tested if he attempted to keep up with Messi’s dancehall footwork. Such a tactic could backfire on United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
Look for: Messi admitted last week that the times he has under-performed in big games have been when he tried too hard to chase the action. Expect him to ease into the flow of the game, waiting for the perfect opportunity – and a glimmer of open space – before stretching his legs and tormenting United.
2. The workhorses
Michael Carrick has been derided even by fans of his own team, and the United midfielder will never face a bigger test than coming up against Barca’s dominant midfield unit.
Carrick and Ryan Giggs must find a way to slow down the Barca machine of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, the engine room that propelled Spain to World Cup glory.
If they can do so, it will give the United backline a chance to cope with the fast-advancing Messi. If not, the Red Devils could get swamped and things may turn ugly in a hurry.
Look for: Carrick may not be the most skilled player in the world but he has, despite the critics, been an effective contributor for Ferguson the past five seasons. He will look to get stuck in early – and physically – and give Xavi and company a signal of his aggressive intent.
3. The redemption story
If ever proof was needed that soccer may be the most fickle of sports, it could be provided by Wayne Rooney.
The United and England forward has suffered a wretched 12 months, having performed miserably in the World Cup, been out of sorts for most of the English Premier League and even been exposed as having cheated on his wife with a Manchester prostitute.
United fans turned on him when he attempted to hold the club to ransom over a new contract by threatening to leave, yet he may be only 90 minutes away from cementing his place as an all-time club hero.
Rooney is perhaps the one United player capable of turning a game on its head single-handedly, and recent glimpses have shown he is nearing his peak once more.
Look for: Whenever Ferguson sees Rooney's shoulders start to slump and his mouth begin to open (usually to berate a referee or a teammate), he gets worried. Body language speaks a thousand words when it comes to the unpredictable 25-year-old, and when he buckles down and simply gets on with the job he is one of the best on the planet.
4. The coaches
Sir Alex Ferguson knows the size of the task ahead of him and has made every effort to keep things relaxed and low-key ahead of this monumental game.
His players traveled to London by train and went on a trip to the theater Thursday in a bonding exercise designed to sweep away nervousness.
Pep Guardiola of Barcelona has kept a more typically structured format, trying to make his squad feel that this is “just another game,” despite the glittering prize at stake.
Both men know that for all the quality at their disposal, the clash could boil down to a tactical battle of wits.
Look for: Guardiola has the luxury of coming off a near-perfect season and knows that when his men are on top form there is no stopping them. The genius of Ferguson is in his ability to adapt tactically when things are not going his way, so don't be surprised if the midfield core is mixed up in a bid to rattle Barca. If you see the versatile Park Ji-Sung being moved to different roles, it is a sign Ferguson is trying to get under Barca’s skin.
5. The legacy
Already this current version of Barcelona is being talked about as perhaps the greatest club side of all time, both for its style of play and inexorable march toward trophy after trophy.
Victory here would go a long way toward cementing that status and would be the perfect way to cap off a campaign that also brought a third straight Spanish league title.
United has its own legacy to consider though, especially with the 69-year-old Ferguson not far from retirement. The 1999 United team that won the treble of the EPL, Champions League and FA Cup has gone down in folklore, but this side would be similarly regarded if it could produce an upset. Such an outcome could even convince Ferguson to go out on the ultimate high.
Look for: The world “greatest.” If Barca wins, the calls to anoint as a team for the ages will be incessant. Similarly, a United victory would cause many to argue that this season should go down as Ferguson’s finest accomplishment, 1999 notwithstanding.
Either team would clearly be a worthy European champion, but while most predict a Barcelona triumph, other factors must be considered. When entering a showdown like this, the string of adversities and obstacles United has been forced to overcome this season could actually help it, having developed a hardened mentality and a feeling in the camp that it can survive any situation.
Barcelona’s brilliance is unmatched, and if Messi, Xavi and friends are at their absolute peak, there will be no stopping them. Finals can be tense affairs, however, and United will like its chances of getting a foothold in the game and hurting its opponent on the counter.
I predict a fiercely fought and entertaining game, with a surprise result: Manchester United 2, Barcelona 1.