Greg Lalas
Monday May 25th, 2009

It's safe to say Wednesday's Champions League final is the most anticipated title match since UEFA created the platinum edition of Europe's top tournament. From Rome to Rochester to Rangoon, everyone with even a modicum of soccer in his blood is planning on watching the game live, regardless if that requires skipping an important sales call at work or losing a few hours of sleep.

This match has everything: Big clubs? Check. Barcelona and Manchester United are two of the biggest ever.

Marquee players? Check. Barça's Lionel Messi and Man. United's Cristiano Ronaldo finished one-two in the voting for the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year.

Historic setting? Check. Rome's Stadio Olimpico has hosted three previous European finals, two European championships and the 1990 World Cup final. Oh, and it was here that sprinter Wilma Rudolph, a.k.a. la Gazzella Nera, won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics.

Of course, these high expectations mean the match will be a stinker, but it's best to remain optimistic. Over the past week or so, 90 percent of my conversations have invariably drifted to the topic of the Champions League final. They all have culminated in the bettor's cliché: "So who do you like?"

Normally, when two titans face off, the neutrals' allegiances are split. After all, along with trophies, a wide-net fan base is a prerequisite for a football giant. But it's been a surprising litany of answers this week, an unexpected bet-hedging, heart-vs.-head collection of responses that have all been variations on a theme.

"I hope Barcelona wins, but I think Manchester United is going to again," an MLS midfielder told me. "Man, they're just so good."

"It's got to be Manchester United," a TV broadcaster told me. "I wish Barcelona would win it, though."

To some extent, the reason people's hearts, even here in the U.S., are with the Blaugrana and not the Red Devils, is the "Evil Empire" syndrome. Like with the New York Yankees, success breeds contempt. Manchester United's consistent success and Sir Alex Ferguson's Vader-ish head games and arrogance eventually rub fans -- at least non-Man U fans -- the wrong way.

But since when did Barcelona -- the club of Cruyff, Koeman, Stoichkov, Romário and Ronaldinho -- qualify for underdog status? This, to me, is one of the most interesting aspects of this final: Manchester United has become so big, rich and potent that even mighty Barcelona is considered small in comparison.

Man, they're just so good.

Truer words have rarely been spoken. From back to front, side to side, Fergie's side is one of the greatest collections of players ever. They aren't all superstars (Darren Fletcher? John O'Shea?) but they play for each other and they fit their roles to perfection (would anyone a year ago have guessed that Fletcher's absence would be talking point?). Their collective tactical awareness would make Giovanni Trapattoni proud, and they are loaded with firepower. Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo, Carlos Tévez, Dimitar Berbatov, Ryan Giggs -- it's like one of those old Red Army parades through Moscow, awesome and awe-inspiring.

And arguably unbeatable. They haven't lost in the last two months, though they did fail to advance to the FA Cup final after succumbing to Everton on PKs after drawing 0-0.

(Sidebar: Remember all the hand-wringing about how the American owners would ruin Man U and possibly English soccer? Since the Glazers took over the club in '05, United has won three straight Premier League titles and is on the verge of a second straight Champions League trophy. Just saying.)

Of course, if there's any team that could beat Manchester United, it's Barcelona, the 100-plus goal-scorers, the flowing freewheelers who would rather win 5-4 than 1-0. They are Antoni Gaudí's designs put into motion on a soccer field, aesthetics and whimsy that somehow functions.

It's this freestyling attitude that stirs so many hearts. I know it thrills me, and I'm a lifelong defender who rarely went over the midfield stripe. You'd have to be an automaton not to be intoxicated by Barça's style, by the vision of Messi cutting inside or Samuel Eto'o slipping in behind the defense or Andrés Iniesta orchestrating the attack.

Unfortunately, style tends to run into problems when confronted by a more realistic opposition. After all, Gaudí's Sagrada Familia was never completed. And so, like so many others, my prediction is Man U will win, maybe 2-1. But I'll be pulling for Barça all the way.

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