A Champions League final with no fear of failure… It could be a classic
Major finals featuring the best teams and the best players, the ones we talk up in advance as being for the connoisseur, often turn out to be the most disappointing, don’t they? Maybe it’s stage fright, too much respect for the opposition or the stakes being just too high, but great teams often seem to save their worst football for finals.
There are exceptions, of course. The 2005 Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool produced exquisite football in the first half from the Italians, and drama that will live long in the minds of anyone who watched it as Liverpool came back.
There was little on show in last year’s game between Manchester United and Chelsea so why are so many people expecting this year’s contest between United and Barcelona to be so different?
I think there is a reason, and I hope I’m proved right by the events on Wednesday in Rome.
A football match can be ruined by almost anything but the surest route to a damp squib is fear of failure.
Neither side on Wednesday has any need to fear the consequences of a defeat. They’re both at the top of the tree domestically, and both have had recent experience of winning the Champions League. It goes without saying they’ll be desperate to win, but no one’s job will be on the line, no project will stand or fall by this one result. Both teams will expect to be back in another Champions League final soon enough.
The last time two outstanding and supremely self-confident teams met in a Champions League final was arguably 1999, when Manchester United faced Bayern Munich. The problem then was that neither side had recent experience of a final. United in particular seemed overawed and it was only the last couple of minutes that rescued what was otherwise a pretty dire match.
Looking further back down the list, the eye is drawn to 1994, when a Barcelona side that had won the competition two years previously, and included Pep Guardiola in midfield, suffered a humbling 4-0 defeat by AC Milan, who had lost the 1993* final to Marseille.
You may argue that the final was too one-sided to be remembered as a classic, but the performance from Milan will go down as one of the great ones.
Will Barcelona, United or both be able to play to that sort of level in Rome on Wednesday? Will Iniesta, Xavi and Messi find the perfect weight and direction on those passes around the penalty area to cut the English defence in two? Will United’s rampant counter-attacks make it another night to forget for Guardiola?
Whatever happens, I suspect we’ll be talking about it for a long time… as long as the two teams stay true to themselves.
* Amended after temporary mind failure on part of author had 2003… (see comments)
PHOTO: Policemen show the UEFA Champions League trophy in front of the Arch of Constantine and Colosseum in Rome May 23, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi