Sorry Chelsea fans, sorry Arsenal fans, in fact may we apologise to the supporters of all the clubs that fell by the wayside on the road to Rome. Because, when Barcelona snatched a 93rd minute equaliser at Stamford Bridge to make the Champions League final against Manchester United, it completed the perfect line-up for Europe’s biggest game.
These are Europe’s two best attacking teams – in command of their domestic leagues, in possession of a frightening array of talent, and with managers desperate for success. It’s a perplexing encounter: can Cristiano Ronaldo prove he’s a more complete player than Messi? How will Carrick fare against Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández? And will Wayne Rooney stay on the pitch long enough to show how good he is?
Despite all the hype surrounding this Barcelona team, we think Manchester Utd may well start as slim favourites. Not only are they the defending champions, but they have been pitted consistently against teams who can compete well against them (while arguably Barca have dominated La Liga without peer). They also combine much of the physicality that so nearly proved successful for Chelsea against Barca in the semi-final with unbelievable attacking flair, arguably only matched in European football by their fellow finalists. Key to this flare is the trio of Ronaldo, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, who are interesting to contrast with Barca’s own fearful strike force of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi. It would be easy to dwell on Messi and Ronaldo – who many see as the pre-eminent players in the world game over the last two seasons. But we reckon Rooney will be the player to watch.
He has enjoyed what many believe is his best season since arriving at Old Trafford and is almost always at the heart of his team – both in attack and defence. As a result, his performances are often indicative of his side’s success: when Utd are at their best he is invariably brilliant, when they are not he’s often sent off. Recently, Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen to deploy Rooney on the flanks, often to neutralise a dangerous attacking threat – such as Theo Walcott in the semi-final against Arsenal, or Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon after Utd went 2-0 down against the London team recently. With much of Barca’s threat coming from players who like to take the ball out wide, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him deployed again in a similar role in the final, where he will look to defend high up the pitch, aggravating Barca’s full backs, before picking up the ball, advancing and releasing Ronaldo.
Since he can play anywhere and brings an almost unique physical style – bustling, quick thinking and with a very low centre of gravity – Barca may struggle to cope with him. For Barca, we believe, if he’s fit, Iniesta is the key player. In many ways he is chalk to Rooney’s cheese. Consummate, and controlled, he loves to tangle the web of passing that has made Barca such a brilliant, beguiling side to watch and so often bewitched the opposition. If he is unchecked by Manchester Utd’s midfield – as he largely remained in both the semi-final legs – then Barca’s main attacking threats will have the possession they need to test the Utd defence – and, perhaps, leave Rooney fuming, once again.
Where to watch
Player’s Lounge Happy hour is 12 noon-8pm, 20 per cent off all drinks. Buckets are Dhs95 for five bottles of selected drinks. (04 398 8840)
Underground Pub Stop A bang-on bar for football and, while usually home to hordes of Liverpool supporters, you can rest assured there’ll be a decent atmosphere. (04 399 5000) Habtoor Grand
Harvesters The home of the Manchester United Supporters’ Club in Dubai. Expect raucous, impassioned masses. They’ll also be wheeling a few big screens into the ballroom for the night (Dhs50 entry to the ballroom, with two selected drinks included). (800 276 963) Crowne Plaza
The Irish Village With one big screen outside and three screens inside, expect a packed IV come match day. (04 282 4750)
Madinat Jumeirah Lagoon-side amphitheatre with three huge screens, promises an electric atmosphere. Dhs100 to get in, and that comes with four selected drinks. Festivities start at 8pm, with DJs at BarZar.
Barasti Huge screen out on the beach. (04 399 3333)
WAFI Rooftop One huge screen, usually used for Movie Under The Stars, and beanbags, with buckets of five selected drinks going for Dhs100. (04 324 4100)
Chi@The Lodge has tables for Dhs1,000 including two 5l kegs of selected drinks. Regular entrance of Dhs100 includes four selected drinks. (04 337 9470)
Time Cafe Choose any steak on match day and get a free carafe. (04 334 4088) Royal Ramee Hotel
The Champions League final falls on May 27 and will be played at Rome’s Stadio Olympico stadium at 10.45pm. The game will be showing live on ART Prime Sports.