Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Just a day away from the final of the UEFA Champions League final. Ask any footballer about his greatest professional dreams, and you will find that playing (winning, rather) the Champs League final comes second only to doing so at a World Cup final. To many fans, this match represents more than even the World Cup final. This match is one of the greatest exhibits of class, excitement and mastery on the football fieeld, traditionally. Who can forget last season's final, when Liverpool came back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win on penalties? Or Manchester United's stirring comeback in 1999, to defeat Bayern 2-1 with two injury time goals from Sheringham and Solskjaer? Yes, the Champions League final seldom fails to produce classic displays of what is truly the Beautiful Game.
This year, it is another English team that has the opportunity to add the celebrated trophy to its cabinet. Arsene Wenger's young side have produced many stirring performances en route to the final, upsetting the odds many times in a fairy tale run that may see them banish the ghosts of previous seasons' memories come May 17 at the Stade de France. Standing in their way, though, is Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard has, in just a few seasons, transformed a struggling side into arguably the best team in the world. The only hurdle left for the Catalans is to prove this by triumphing against Arsenal.
One of the main reasons behind Barca's success has been Ronaldinho, the two-time reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. The Brazilian knows how to entertain, but he does so without compromising any chance to make the opposition pay. He has proven time after time that he can't be stopped. The only chance Arsenal have against him appears to lie in having five players marking him and hoping that he has a bad day.
Even if, by some miracle, Ronaldinho fails to live upto expectations, Barca have Samuel Eto'o up front. The Cameroonian has sealed the Golden Boot award in the Primera Liga, and is desperate to display his wares in Paris, especially as he is one of the few men in this match who won't be going to Germany as Cameroon failed to reach the World Cup finals. In addition to Eto'o, the team also boasts the talents of the mercurial French winger Ludovic Giuly and former Champions League winner (with Porto) Deco. All in all, a potent forward line.
Arsenal's main man is skipper Thierry Henry. Having won the English Premier League's Golden Boot award yet again, the Frenchman is keen to do well on his return to his hometown. Recent speculation about a possible move to Barca in the summer can only serve to fire him up. With Adebayor and Theo Walcott unable to play the final, his allies in attack will probably be Fredrik Ljungberg, Robin van Persie, Aliaksandr Hleb, Jose Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires.
And then comes young Spaniard Francesc Fabregas. Following Patrick Vieira's move to Juventus, Fabregas made the central midfield spot his own with a string of brilliant displays. Arguably Arsenal's best player this season, he will be crucial, given his prowess to break from defence and his crisp passing, coupled with his innate ability to create space in which to manouever. What makes this match interesting for him is that he was a product of the Barcelona youth system before he moved to North London.
On the opposing side, he will face his childhood mate, Argentine wonderkid Lionel Messi. Messi, however, may not get to start or even play due to an injury suffered in the Round of 16 against Chelsea. Instead, another Barca youth system product, Andres Iniesta, is going to trouble the Gunners with his marauding runs and ability to find the right person with every pass. If Ronaldinho is heavily marked, this lad could take advantage and make Arsenal pay.
All right, now that we have seen the people who are going to try and get the ball into the back of the net, let us focus on the people trying to stop them. First the defensive midfielders. Barcelona has two good options. Marc van Bommel has been in fine form of late, and along with a decent defensive setup, he provides good attacking instincts. In contrast, Jose Edmilson is a centreback by trade, and may be the hard man Barca want to keep tabs on Henry. Arsenal will probably let Gilberto Silva handle the defensive midfield duties for them. He did a great job marking Riquelme in the semis, but he knows that his compatriot Ronaldinho is on a completely different level. Gunners fans will pray that he knows something about Ronaldinho from their time in the national team that could give him the edge.
Now to the defences. At rightback, Barca can choose between Belletti and Oleguer, both good players in their own right. Arsenal have young Emmanuel Eboue, fast and brutal, if the situation demands it. He will need all his abilities to keep the rampaging Catalans in check. The Barca centrebacks are the experienced campaigners Rafael Marquez and skipper Carles Puyol. A tough, experienced combination, but they will be tested by the pacy Henry. Their Arsenal counterparts are Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, with a slight possibility that Philippe Senderos may be fit to play. While not bearing the pedigree of Puyol and Marquez, they can boast of a record run of clean sheets in the Champions League, and will be tough to get past. At leftback, Barca has former Gunner Gio van Bronckhorst, who has made the most of his second chance in Catalunya after a few seasons on the Arsenal bench. His backup is another former Gunner, Sylvinho. The corresponding position for Arsenal is Wenger's greatest worry, with a large number of players having been used over the course of the season in that position, including the injured midfielder Flamini. Gael Clichy appears to be fit to play again, and may get the nod.
And finally, the goalkeepers. Barca has Victor Valdes standing between the posts. He has a good campaign, and is statistically the best goalkeeper in Spain this season. Arsenal can boast of arguably the most in-form 'keeper in the world this season in Jens Lehmann. Newly appointed Germany's chief custodian ahead of Oliver Kahn, he has had a stunning season, and has played a great role in Arsenal's road to the final, not least of which involved a spectacular penalty save against Riquelme in injury time in the second leg of the semifinal against Villareal to get Arsenal to the final.
Overall prediction- if Barcelona display their talents even a little bit, they can rip apart any team in the world, including Arsenal. If they have an off night, however, Henry, Fabregas and co. will make them pay. If both teams play equally well, Barca still retains the favourites tag. However, if Arsenal manage to keep Super Ron quiet without leaving the other Barca stars to do as they like, they could take the game to penalties, which is probably what most would feel they should aim for. In a penalty shootout, Lehmann has to be favoured to fare better than Valdes, and the trophy could be on its way to London.
One thing is for certain, though, in this final held 50 years after the first one was won by Real Madrid. Like all Champions League finals, there will be plenty of excitement, and the odd surprise is possible, so nothing written on this post so far really matters. All I can say is, enjoy, cause you might just be in for the ride of your life!


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