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
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
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
But since when did Barcelona -- the club of
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 (
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
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
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
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.