The UEFA Champions League final this Saturday at Wembley in London is a supreme clash of modern soccer's superpowers. Barcelona regularly battles Real Madrid for supremacy in Spain's La Liga, while Manchester United finds itself tussling with Arsenal, Chelsea and, once upon a time, Liverpool for honors in the English Premier League.
Often in Europe, where the trophies that really matter are won, that sort of domestic dominance counts for very little. As the contemporary game has evolved, coaches often conjure a matchday 11 for league matches while signing a player or two for other competitions. A perfect example is Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United.
The South Korean midfielder rarely pops up on the teamsheet for a league match against, say, Wolves. But when there's an important game midweek against a Spanish or German side, there's no doubt he'll be plying his trade wherever manager Alex Ferguson needs him. That depth is the key to winning multiple honors.
Ferguson has been an absolute master at that, but he might have truly met his match in Barca's Pep Guardiola after all these years. The Spaniard who grew up within the Barcelona youth system represents all that is both insular yet dynamic about the Catalan side. Where Barcelona goes, Guardiola goes ... and that's nothing to dismiss.
This team is built on the Beautiful Game. Andres Iniesta, Xavi and, no surprises here, Lionel Messi weave the ball in such beautiful ways that he old Arsenal teams of Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira ... all Frenchmen, by the way, taught at the country's national training center ... seem pedestrian by comparison.
In recent years, the joie de vivre of European football seems to have given way to carefully-planned tactics and vanilla gameplans that fail lo favor the brave. One can only hope that that the soccer we see Saturday rises to the level these two teams are capable of producing. Do you need a reminder of what that can be?
Just check out the video links I've provided in this post. The first sees a desperate Man United snatch a victory with (very!) late goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer over Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp in Barcelona in 1999. Never has there been a more potent example of smash-and-grab in soccer.
That game holds some significance for me. My wife Victoria and I were living in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. at the time, and I was working nights as a member of The Press Sports section. At that time, my twin sons and I spent lots of hours together during the day. When Solskjaer scored for Man United in a 2-1 win, I let out an involuntary yelp in celebration.
By my standards, it was tame. But to a pair of frightened infants, it was an invitation to scream bloody murder! Well, never mind ... when we have our viewing party this Saturday, they'll welcome their teammates from the U-13 Mainland Bulldogs, expecting to nake some noise. My, how things change as soccer goes mainstream.
Th second link shows the current Barcelona team in all its glory, beating Man United in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in 2009. If for nothing else, Barca's 2-0 victory is remembered for Lionel Messi scoring with his head in a comprehensive performance. The same two teams meet again this Saturday, whetting everyone's appetite for more.
The Champions League final airs live locally Saturday on WTXF-29 (Fox) at 2 p.m.