UEFA Champion League final preview: Barcelona-Manchester United

i-716f6241e43007d2ac43ab047bd45594-riosiralex.jpgMeet the Press: A United Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson speak at a news conference today ahead of Saturday’s UEFA Champions League finale (AP Photos).

Let’s hope I’m not jinxing the occasion or over-hyping it, but all the signs are pointing to a game for the ages when this one kicks off at about 11:30 a.m. Saturday on Fox and I’m not alone in thinking that. Associated Press writer Stuart Condie has more:

WEMBLEY, England (AP) — Alex Ferguson believes the Champions League showdown between Manchester United and Barcelona could be the best final in the last 10 years.

With Barcelona lauded as one of the greatest clubs in soccer history and Ferguson insisting his players are better prepared than when the teams met two years ago, the United manager said Friday the ingredients are in place for a classic.

Barcelona has already clinched a third straight Spanish title, and such is the fashion in
which Lionel Messi and his teammates routinely dismantle opponents that United is a clear underdog Saturday despite having reached a third final in four seasons.

“The success both teams have had in the past decade has been enormous,” Ferguson said. “It really could be the best final of the decade. The attraction of two teams with such history is obvious. Anything could happen in this game.”

The coaches are agreed on one thing: Each team will give a better account of itself than it did in the 2009 final, when United was rattled by Barcelona’s early goal and went down

“I’m very happy with winning in Rome,” said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who as a player helped Barcelona win its first title in 1992. “But let’s be honest, we have to play better than we played in Rome and I have told my players that repeatedly.”

Barcelona has done that for much of this season, with the likes of world champions Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets helping their team control close to two-thirds possession in this season’s Champions League — against supposedly Europe’s best teams.

“Fans want us to be faithful to the way we play, to our philosophy, and we will be,” goalkeeper Victor Valdes said. “If we are to win, that’s the only way we can get there.”

Ferguson acknowledged that he had consulted Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho for ideas on how to approach the game. Ferguson’s friend is one of the select few to have engineered a victory — albeit one that was followed by a humbling defeat in the Champions League semifinals — over Barcelona this season.

“I’ve had a small conversation with him and he’s wished us all the best,” Ferguson said. “He knows we’re prepared.”

United enters the game coming off a record 19th English title. It also advanced to the final without conceding an away goal and is drawing close to two decades of dominance in England. Still, it is the biggest long shot in a Champions League final in more than a decade.

i-24b49538764fa2551c73309d11e63b43-peptalks.jpgPep talks: Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola may lead a club team out against Manchester United that frighteningly enough may not reach its full potential for several years.

“We are proud that in the future — in the next four, five, 10, 15 years — some guys will
remember this team playing right now,” Guardiola said. “If they say, ‘One time I saw this team and they played good for us,'” we are glad. But to say we are the best team ever is
impossible. It is not true.”

With a penalty-kick shootout to follow if neither team wins through regulation or extra time, one club will leave Wembley tied with Bayern Munich and Ajax with four titles. Only Real Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool have won more.

Barcelona won its first title at Wembley in 1992 before picking up two more titles in the past five years. United also won its first at the north London stadium in 1968 in a 4-1 victory over Portugal’s Benfica with George Best at his dazzling best.

“It’s at Wembley and that gives you an awareness that this is a big game,” said Ferguson, the most decorated manager in English soccer. “And I like big games.”

Ferguson’s players want some payback for 2009.

“It doesn’t bother us who is favorite and who is not,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said. “It is about performing in a one-off game. We respect them for what they are, the way they play the game and the strengths they have.”

Carrick is likely to start, with the veteran Ryan Giggs or more defensive Darren Fletcher
alongside him. England striker Wayne Rooney is likely to sit deep behind Mexican international Javier Hernandez, with Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung occupying the wide positions.

Barcelona captain Carles Puyol said he is fit following the knee injury that restricted him to a handful of games since January. Guardiola said fullback Eric Abidal is available and free from the aftereffects of a liver tumor this season.

“Anyone coming to a game of this nature doesn’t care what the experts say or the bookmakers say,” Ferguson said. “We will be going out there with a genuine chance.

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