Wednesday, May 17, 2006

History Awaits the Champions League Final

It's here, It's here!! Barcelona v Arsenal, come quickly, the Champions League final! For football lovers today is Christmas morning. Bursting with expectation and excitement, giddied by weeks of anticipation, we'll tip-toe into our living rooms and turn on the TV and.....will it be the gleaming new 18-speed mountain bike, or the knitted jumper with reindeer patterns?

Usually the gathering blizzard of preview chatter before a game like this debates the relative merits of the competing teams. This year, attracting equal attention and speculation, is the question of whether or not the game will be an all-out, certifiable, hang-it-on-your-wall CLASSIC! As a result of the fact that Europe's two most exciting, technically gifted and stylish club sides meet in Europe's showpiece occasion, those who curate the game's spirit and burnish its most treasured memories are excitedly anticipating a Champions League final for the annals.

The first thing to say is that we are after a refined sort of classic here. Liverpool's victories in last season's Champions League final and in last Saturday's Cup Final will live long in the memory and were fashioned from an indefatigable spirit and, especially in the case of the former, the raw reservoir of emotion from which that club can frequently draw.

But that won't do this time. No, no, dear boy. While we appreciate the visceral charge of the lung-busting, end-to-end, never-say-die thriller sort of final, and will happily accept a dollop of that sort of thing tonight, what we're talking about here is aesthetics. When aficionados of the European game talk reverently about Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960 or AC Milan v Barcelona in 1994, they don't refer to last-gasp equalisers or unlikely comebacks. These occasions haved lived in the memory because of the rare spectacle of the the game played in its most beautiful form, by its most accomplished practitioners, on its greatest occasion.

Tonight then. We have the occasion: the Champions League final is, of course, the most prestigious club match, and given the slow marginalisation of international football, can be argued to have more genuine relevance than its World Cup equivalent. We have the players. Ronaldinho and Henry alone dazzle from the cast list, before the chorus, which includes Eto'o, Deco, Messi, Giuly, Larsson, Fabregas, Reyes, Hleb, Bergkamp and Pires is considered.

Will we have the game?

Well, sublimely gilded as both rosters are, we can take instruction from the more prosaic joys of Saturday's Cup final. It unfolded as it did because West Ham, as is their nature, 'had a go', as the expression goes, and scored early enough to open the game up and render the natural inhibition and caution that inhabits such an occasion obselete. Put simply, if one one team decides to go for the jugular, or if we have an early goal, then, given the pure talent on either side, what would follow should be glorious.

Should the game remain deadlocked for a significant length of time, then, even in these buccaneering squads, the pressure of the occasion and the imperative of victory would take over. Both teams have shown ample ability to close fixtures down, and Arsenal, for all the plaudits their football attracts, navigated the qualifying stages scoring only 4 goals in 6 matches. It follows, obviously, that resolute defence has been as important as pinball passing moves. That their conservative second leg performances against Juventus and Villareal were their least impressive doesn't alter the fact that they were successful.

Barca too, while they coughed up potentially chances for both Benfica and Milan in the earlier rounds, have displayed capability in the arts of security, the second leg against Chelsea a particular demonstration of a tie being killed. Gifted as both sides may be, neither will feel obliged to provide anything but a win; this evening it will be only the neutrals whose first wish is for a glorious match.

So, come 10.30pm Paris time, and hopefully we're swooning with delight at it all, who will have been victorious? Barcelona start worthy favourites. Frank Rijkaard has crafted a double La Liga winning side, one which marries the loudly heralded gifts of their many-pronged attacking talents - and while Lionel Messi cannot be fully fit, his naming in the squad for tonight only adds to that artillery - to a less reknowned defensive stoutness. It's is not often mentioned that they have the best defensive record in Spain this season. In front of the redoubtable Carlos Puyol, the likes of Edmilson and Thiago Motta have swept up behind the storied names ahead of them. Rijkaard can then choose the underrated gifts of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, just returned from injury and one of the finest passing playmakers in the game.

But Arsenal have every chance. Henry will drift out to the left, as he does, and the Frenchman who could be playing his last match for Arsenal will, of course, be at the core of their chances. But the other wing could provide their biggest chance.

If you were Rijkaard, you wouldn't ask Ronaldinho to defend, would you? No. But still, his billet, nominally on the left side of midfield, is regarded as a possible area for exploitation by Arsenal, if left vulnerable by the great man's less than diligent tracking. Swift raids up the flanks are the Gunners' stock-in-trade and Emmanuel Eboue, Arsenal's fleet-footed Ivorian right full-back will relish that space to attack. That is if the youngster isn't terrified of advance by the thought of the space he is leaving for the buck-toothed fella behind him.

Here you have the game in a nutshell. Both teams have the capability to attack from anywhere, but will know that the opposition are capable of punishing any overexuberance. Whichever way it goes, Barcelona have the edge, I feel. If it is a tight game they have the artifice to pick any lock. If it opens up, they will be happy to outslug anyone; they have Spain's leading defensive record alright, but, of course, they top the scoring charts by a country mile also.

Barca to write their name into those annals, hopefully with the indelible ink of a memorable match.


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