Five things to watch in the Champions League final
A win would cement Barcelona's place among the greatest teams in history
Man United will consider man-marking Barcelona forward Lionel Messi
Barcelona will need to keep an eye on United's Javier Hernandez
It's here: the biggest game of the year in world club soccer. Five things to watch for in Saturday's UEFA Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United (2 p.m. ET, Fox):
Can this Barcelona team enter the pantheon? Let's be clear: when Barça takes the field at London's Wembley Stadium, it will be competing not just with Manchester United but also for a place among the greatest teams in history. I know, I know: Barça didn't win the Copa del Rey in Spain. But winning the Spanish League and Champions League titles would be more than enough to make up for it, and the dominance of this Barcelona team sets it apart, both statistically (goals scored, time of possession, number of passes) and stylistically. (We'll be telling stories to our grandkids someday about watching the brilliance of Lionel Messi and Xavi and the gang.) Still, you need to win the Big One to get in the pantheon. Thankfully, we've got the world's two best teams in the final -- how often does that happen? -- which would only help burnish Barça's historical bonafides with a victory.
Can United find a way to slow down Messi and the world's most dominant possession attack? Real Madrid tried to man-mark Messi with Pepe in the Champions League semis and was reasonably successful: Messi didn't do his real damage until Pepe was sent off. But don't expect Sir Alex Ferguson to try anything too gimmicky; Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have been solid in the central defense, and it's unlikely that Michael Carrick will shadow Messi everywhere he goes in the way that Pepe did. Look for United to play straight-up defense and (using players like Park Ji-Sung) harass Barcelona all over the field, especially early. United can't afford to allow Pep Guardiola's boys an early goal as it did in the '09 final, not least because this Barcelona team is even better at possessing the ball and maintaining a lead.
Is Chicharito going to steal the show? If you stop and think about it, the rise of Javier (Chicharito) Hernández has been nothing short of breathtaking. When Man United announced the acquisition of the 22-year-old Mexican from Guadalajara 13 months ago, it was easy to wonder if he'd even get playing time at the club. All he's done since then is score 20 goals (in all competitions) for United this season and push Dimitar Berbatov out of the starting lineup while combining well with Wayne Rooney up top. Hernández's speed will be key if United is to score on the counter against Barcelona, and his instinctive movement off the ball helps open things up for Rooney. Chicharito has already had a storybook year. Now he has a chance to somehow make it even more memorable.
Will another storyline take over? There's a lot to talk about heading into this game. How much will playing on English soil help Manchester United? Can 37-year-old Ryan Giggs continue making a major impact for United so late in his career? Will Eric Abidal get the start at left back for Barça just weeks after surgery to remove a growth on his liver? Can David Villa (and to some degree, Barcelona itself) return to the impeccable form of earlier this season? How much longer will the window be open for Xavi, now 31, to reign at the highest level? And closer to home, how will Fox do on its broadcast? Will it dumb down the pregame for U.S. viewers (as it did to ill effect on its FX broadcast of the first Champions League semifinal)? Or will it treat viewers like adults?
Which manager will most enhance his legacy? At just 40, Barcelona's Guardiola can win his second Champions League title as a coach, while United's Ferguson can win his third at 69. They have differing styles: Barça's Gerard Piqué, who has played for both, told me not long ago that Ferguson is more of a motivator, while Guardiola does more to explain why a player should be doing something on the field. Guardiola may not get the full respect he deserves, since so much credit goes to Barcelona's youth academy for developing players, but winning another Champions League crown with one of the greatest teams in history would certainly cement his place as one of the greats. Ferguson is already there, and yet winning on Saturday as an underdog would add a new twist to his legend. I think this game will be closer than many expect, but I also think Messi is playing at a special level now that few players have ever reached. We'll see that in Wembley on Saturday when it counts most.
Prediction: Barcelona 2, Manchester United 1.
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