The countdown to Rome has officially begun.
By ratifying their domestic dominance in clinching the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga titles, respectively, Manchester United and Barcelona now get to rest key players ahead of the biggest game of the year – the UEFA Champions League final on May 27 at Rome's Stadio Olimpico – in what promises to be a showdown for the ages between the world's two best club teams.
The two most exciting leagues in soccer won't feature thrilling finishes to their title races, but it is a small price to pay as both United and Barca were already in danger of missing important players through injury and suspension.
Critical league-deciding matches would have further increased the likelihood of dwindling resources at the disposal of Man United's Sir Alex Ferguson and Barcelona's Pep Guardiola. Now, Ferguson and Guardiola have the luxury of relying on predominantly reserve team members for their final league games to allow their top stars to be fully fit for the one match that really counts.
Such is the magnitude of this game. Rarely has a contest so closely resembled a heavyweight title fight, with both clubs chasing unique slices of history in bids for multiple 2009 trophies (United looking to add a fourth, Barca eyeing a third).
With United getting the title-clinching point it needed against Arsenal and Barcelona securing the Spanish crown thanks to Real Madrid's defeat, a superb club season in Europe gets its dream ending between two titans at the peak of their powers.
Weekend First XI
1. Get them an Advil
Inter Milan's players celebrated in style after winning the Serie A for the fourth year in a row. The squad commandeered an open top bus and rode it into Milan's city center in order to share their triumph with joyous fans. The impromptu tour created a massive headache for city officials, who were forced to instigate a rapid cleanup before the Giro d'Italia cycling race passed through just hours later.
2. Get him a beer
Cuauhtemoc Blanco's international career was resurrected once again when the Chicago Fire playmaker was recalled by new head coach Javier Aguirre. Aguirre's judgment is sound – Mexico desperately needs some extra spark after a dismal start to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying – and Blanco's spiky approach could be just what is needed.
3. Get him some earplugs
West Brom striker Roman Bednar is in serious trouble with soccer chiefs after allegedly being caught buying hundreds of dollars of cocaine. According to the News of the World newspaper, Bednar met with a drug dealer just hours after an EPL game. West Brom is conducting an investigation and Bednar faces a lengthy suspension if the claims are proven.
4. Four corners
• What will be done to control crowd trouble when the European Championship goes to Poland (and Ukraine) in 2012?
• Could Luis Figo be tempted to halt the retirement talk and join MLS?
• Can a return to France revitalize Patrick Vieira's career?
• Will the Philadelphia Union become the most passionately supported club in Major League Soccer?
5. Catch a flight to …
Hull. This grimy city on England's east coast is regularly voted among the worst places to live in the United Kingdom based on statistics for crime, education and environment. But it is also home to Hull City FC, and there will be one heck of a party Sunday if the local club can avoid relegation from the EPL when it takes on an under-strength Manchester United.
6. A round of applause for …
Guus Hiddink. The Chelsea coach was given a guard of honor as he walked on to the pitch for his final home game in charge of the Stamford Bridge club. Hiddink, who will resume full-time duties with the Russia national team at the end of the season, has only lost once as Chelsea boss in steering the club out of the miserable situation it was mired in under Luiz Felipe Scolari.
7. Get him a Kleenex
Rafa Benitez. Liverpool's brave attempt to land the EPL title came up short, and while Benitez's refusal to personally congratulate Sir Alex Ferguson was disappointing, it is perhaps understandable given the level of animosity between the two.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Cornell Glen. The Trinidad and Tobago forward has been snapped up by the San Jose Earthquakes on a one-year deal after impressing in a short trial period.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
United Soccer Leagues. The USL, the second-tier competition in the United States and Canada, is coming under increasing danger as Major League Soccer looks to expand into its markets. The possibility of reforming as a new organization under the auspices of MLS over the next few years is feasible.
10. Get excited about …
"Kick Like a Girl." This moving documentary about a girl's third-grade soccer team that wins the right to compete against boys debuts on HBO Family on May 28 and is well worth a look.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Francesca Chillemi, girlfriend of Roma midfielder Alberto Aquilani.