- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

ROME | From Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi to Wayne Rooney vs. Thierry Henry, this Champions League final shapes up as a classic of European club soccer.

Already with the domestic league and cup titles to show for his first season as a coach, Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola chases the ultimate prize in European club soccer Wednesday when he bids to topple Manchester United and Alex Ferguson in a final fans all over the world have been waiting for.

“I think we have been able to show maturity for quite a few months, but tomorrow’s game is the most important,” Guardiola told reporters at Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. “I want the players to feel well, to feel beautiful, to feel like they are playing in front of the whole world, to be daring and to feel that they are here because they deserve it and to show how good we are. It’s the best match to show it.”

After scoring 151 league and cup goals this season, Barcelona has the ability to take the title from defending champion Manchester United, which also captured the Premier League title for the third season in a row and 11th time in 17 years.

While Barcelona is chasing its third trophy of the season, Manchester United is after a fourth. Ferguson’s team has also captured the FIFA Club World Cup and domestic League Cup.

Manchester United will make more history if South Korean star Park Ji-sung becomes the first Asian player to play in a Champions League final. He was surprisingly left off the squad that beat Chelsea in a penalty shootout following a 1-1 draw in Moscow.

“I think there was a terrible disappointment last season when we didn’t include him in the squad,” Ferguson said. “I can assure you he will be involved in the squad tomorrow and, if he plays or comes on, he has an impact that other players like Messi and Ronaldo don’t have.

“He’s a different type of player. He has fantastic understanding of space and movement which is completely different from Messi and Cristiano. [They] work to have the ball all the time and make things happen, whereas Ji-sung doesn’t need the ball.”

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand says he will play after shaking off a calf muscle injury, and Guardiola said he was confident striker Thierry Henry and attacking midfielder Andres Iniesta also would be fit, setting up the final even neutral fans have been waiting for.

In Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Henry, Barcelona has a strikeforce to match or even outplay Manchester United’s. Ferguson is unlikely to field Ronaldo, Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez all at the same time, and there is speculation that two of them will be on the bench when the game kicks off.

Likewise, Ferguson is unlikely to field 30-something midfielders Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs at the same time against the top quality duo of Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta.

But Ferguson should have the edge when it comes to defense.

With Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defense, that lineup at the back can show why the team set a British record by going 1,311 minutes without conceding a goal in the league during midseason.

Barcelona, by contrast, will be without Brazilian right back Daniel Alves and French left back Eric Abidal because of suspensions and Mexican center back Rafael Marquez because of an injury.

The only thing missing from this final in Italy’s capital are any Italians.

Serie A missed out again in a competition it used to dominate when AC Milan and Juventus were at their best.

Now Italy’s top teams can only watch, although there are security fears that local fans may try to ambush the spectacle by targeting the visiting 50,000 spectators from England and Spain, who have been advised to stay away from certain parts of the city on match day.

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