Soccer

Champions League Final Preview: Manchester United v. Barcelona

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Ah. The Champions League final at Wembley Stadium.

Call it the Super Bowl mixed with the XFL Million Dollar Game crossed with the Eliminator from "American Gladiators" and a heaping, healthy dose of European dance pop.

In the word of Chris Treager, there is literally nothing bigger on planet earth in the records of human history as important at Manchester United playing Barcelona for the proverbial trophy with the big ears. This is the big one, folks.

Or just take Curt Menefee's word for it on FOX.

This is Liiiiiiiionel Messi vs. Wayne Roooooooooooooooooney.

Basically, your life will change after this match. You will not be the same person. You might be able to taste smells and hear colors. Anything is in play.

Okay. Not really. Can't fault FOX broadcasting corporation for trying to turn the UEFA Champions League final into a must-see, weekend, television watch for sports fans of all ages. Hell, let's not kid ourselves. It's certainly a more relevant Memorial Day weekend sporting event in the year 2011 than the Indy 500, isn't it.

From a television standpoint, if arguably the two biggest clubs in the world(*) can't move the Neilsen ratings dial, well, it will go to show that Americans sitting on their couches still aren't hip to the idea of the Champions League. Never mind the fact that as a product of their nature, nine times out of 10 a final, one-off soccer game tends to produce less than amazing play.

(*) Probably, if you wanted, you could make a strained comparison how which team you root for secretly shows your political leanings, with Manchester United the more conservative choice compared to the epitome of leftists worldwide in Barça. Not sure it totally works, though a Barça fan is more likely to own a Che Guevera t-shirt.

That's a story for another day or another site. FOX can promo the game across it's various platforms, but if Joe Buck reading a god-awfully written promo during a Yankees/Mets game going to drive viewers to the set? It's not quite the same cross-platform promotion ESPN can ram down your throat and into the recesses of your brain with it's phalanx of 24-hour sports networks.

Instead of breaking down if Sir Alex Ferguson is going to use Anderson or Michael Carrick to try to protect the center of the park against the unstoppable troika of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the soccer nerd's dream player -- Sergio Busquets -- or if Rooney is going to be able to find passing lanes to allow Chicharito to get behind Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique, I'm taking another approach.

Saturday's game at Wembley clearly pits the two best teams from the Champions League competition itself. United have only allowed four goals in the entire competition, while Barça is Barça, laying waste to everyone with 27 goals scored -- 11 from Messi.

Are they the best teams across all of Europe this calendar year? In Barcelona's case, yes. No argument at all, as the Spanish champs ran away with La Liga.

The odd dichotomy of the Champions League, is that the actual best teams in Europe in a given season don't actually play in it. The lack of correlation from league from to Champions League was never more abundantly clear than FC Schlake 04 reaching the semifinals while mired in the lower half of the Bundesliga table.

Speaking of the Bundesliga, arguably the most fun team across all of Europe this season not named Barcelona might have been 2010-11 German champions Borussia Dortmund, a squad full of young, homegrown players that had the entire nation happy for their triumph.

For all the accomplishments of Dortmund this year, they've already been forced to sell off star midfielder Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid. It means they'll enter next season's Champions League searching for a replacement in arguably the most important area on the field.

The cupboard isn't bare for Dortmund. Players like Mario Götze, Sven Bender and Kevin Großkreutz should improve, though you wonder what could of been if Jürgen Klopp's squad had been kept intact. Could they mount an outsider challenge for the biggest prize in club soccer?

Teams -- even champions of a major league -- face the precariously free-market economy reality that is European soccer.

Dortmund aren't alone. The crazy thing is, the other two sides on the continent which raised the hackles of most "soccer nerds" or "tactics nerd" face similar questions heading into the 2011-12 Champions League as Dortmund.

Going undefeated domestically and winning the Europa League, you could argue FC Porto were the most dominant team of anyone this current season. Even in the Portuguese top flight winning 27 games and drawing three is absolutely ridiculous.

Now the club has to worry about losing it's white-hot manager, Andre Villa-Boras, it's top striker Falcao and anyone else who isn't tied down to bigger fish.

Same thing is probably going to happen in Italy, where Serie A's most television-friendly club -- Udinese -- squeezed into the Champions League qualification playoffs, but will probably have to make the tournament proper without the No. 1 target in all of Europe, Chilean attacker Alexis Sanchez as well as a slew of other internationals on the books in northeastern Italy.

In Spain, Villareal are in the same spot at Udinese, the playoff round of the Champions League but are already strongly rumored to be selling off top striker Guiseppe Rossi to ... yep, Barcelona. Meanwhile in France, Ligue 1 champions Lille will likely contest next season's Champions League without it's top offensive players with Eden Hazard and Gervinho each linked to bigger clubs across Europe.

All of it makes you think of that Radiohead lyric from the aptly titled, "Optimistic."

The big fish eat the little ones
The big fish eat the little ones

Not my problem give me some

You can try the best you can

If you try the best you can

The best you can is good enough

Beyond the pipe dream of the financial Fair Play idea proposed by UEFA President Michel Platini, what are these mid-sized clubs to do, aside from playing feeders to the bigger teams? Teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid do, in fact, need other clubs to play against other than themselves, don't they?

It's hard, from afar, to judge the actions of these clubs. If you're Udinese and, say, Inter Milan offers you $60 million for Sanchez, you have take it, right? That's like a 20-to-1 profit on a player you bought in 2006 for $3 million from Colo Colo. It's not going to help you on the field, but money is money and if you're a club like Udinese you have to hope you can reinvest it and find more young players around the world to develop and grow like Sanchez.

Certainly this isn't a fun situation, nor is it one that fans exactly have to like, but it's the ugly reality.

Of the clubs previously mentioned, it would be nice if Porto could find a way to hold firm, keep its side intact and make a run at the big boys. They seem to have the Portuguese league on lockdown and enough depth to compete domestically and in Europe concurrently. Though the argument is that the club did, in fact, win the Champions League as recently as 2004, yet it remains positioned in very much the same way -- a nice, powerful club outside the true blue blood elites.

And that's the one thing that is a product of how soccer is run. There is a tacit, accepted caste system across most of the continent. Few teams seem to have ambition to challenge the accepted hegemony. Maybe it's that Eurpoean way of thinking, resigning yourself to the fact your club will never, no matter how many games you win, be looked at the same way as Real Madrid. Players, when they get good enough, will always want to play where the lights are a little brighter.

Part of me has to think, at least, wouldn't a player like Sahin want to take the challenge of lifting Borussia Dortmund back to the top of Europe, where it was in 1996? Real Madrid is Real Madrid, but is playing Westfalenstadion all that shabby? Side tangent: The executives running the Bundesliga know what they are doing. You can be a "star" there, though a star to German-speaking folks. (The Bungesliga's operation seems the only one in Europe comparable to most American pro sports in its oversight, marketing, operation, etc.)

Then again, these clubs aren't necessarily stupid either. Even if they hold onto their key assets, who much good is going to do them on the field? Is Udinese ever going to have the resources to keep pace with a Manchester United on a yearly basis?

One season of Champions League television revenue(*) and gate receipts worth this gamble? Positioned like Udinese in a small, provincial-type club? No. Dortmund and Porto certainly have the resourceful, the staff, the stadium all the off-field things necessary to launch an assault at the European elite and shake up the status quo.

(*) Didn't have a place to integrate it into this piece, but does the television money make all the difference to keep the European landed gentry away from the unwashed riff raff?

Or more immediately from a purely sporting standpoint, how many teams can reasonably expect to compete with Barcelona in its current form, which some are talking up as one of the best in the history of the sport? As long as the spine of Pique and Puyol in defense, Iniesta and Xavi in the midfield and Messi up top and the wildcard play of Dani Alves remains intact, everyone is reasonably chasing for second place across the entire world anyway.

Might as well make money when you can.

Seven Other Thoughts:

* If United are going to win, it'll need another quality game from Edwin van der Sar in goal. It would be appropriate for the big Dutchman, in his final competitive match, to play well, as he's done all season.

* For all the star power on both sides, starting with Rooney and Messi, wouldn't it seem appropriate for a lesser heralded player like Park or Pedro coming up with the deciding goal? Though, Pedro is Barcelona's second-leading Champions League scorer. (David Villa? Where's he been? Figure Rafael factors into this game somewhere, too, for United.)

* If you're scoring at home, these are the guys on either side that I don't entirely dislike -- a ringing endorsement! ... Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs, Chicharito, Rooney (I'm a fan, what can I say, makes me laugh if nothing else), Dani Alves, Victor Valdes, David Villa and Ibrahim Allefay. ... Least favorite: Javier Mascherano.

* It's odd, isn't it, that everyone trying to preview/analyze this game assumes to know Pep Guardiola's tactics with Barcelona. There isn't even a doubt to who'll start where and do what. Can that ever be a bad thing? When you're as good as Barça , you can get away with it. The one knock you can make on Barca is that they've used the same squad almost too much. This idea feels flimsy to me. Until someone cracks how to beat their pressing-meets-possession game regularly, or Xavi's legs fall off, Barcelona can keep doing what it's been doing.

* Is there a Randy "Macho Man" Savage-tized Champions League preview floating somewhere in the Interwebs? Wish I was insane enough to write that ... or not. (Unrelated: This might be the funniest thing I've read all year.)

* Messi, however you slice it, is truly the more gifted, special, iconic, etc. player compared to Rooney. Could you almost say Messi is so other worldly transcendent, that he's almost boring and anti-compelling? Nothing wrong with that, he just seems pre-sex scandal Tiger Woods style boring, albeit driven, like all he wants to do is play socccer. Rooney, for all his warts, hits on a visceral level.

* The tenor of this match all boils down to if Sir Alex decides to follow the playbook from Jose Mourinho, sitting deep, turning the game into a slug fest, having Paul Scholes look menacingly in the direction of Iniesta, etc. That, though, seems like a way to play for a slow death, unless Rooney and friends can exploit gaps in space on the counterattack. My guess is United comes out initially trying to play Barcelona, looking to win fouls in dangerous positions where it can exploit the size of Vidic on headers. Expect this one to be more exciting, either way, then the last time these two giants met in the Champions League final in 2009 if only for the appreciated lack of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Prediction: Manchester United 2, Barcelona 2 (United wins in PKs)