- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just nine weeks ago, Manchester United and FC Barcelona met before a worldwide audience of more than 300 million in the UEFA Champions League final — a clash of soccer titans played out on the grandest of stages.

For the second time in three years, Barcelona triumphed over the Red Devils in convincing fashion and celebrated as the top club Europe has to offer. Come Saturday, United will get a shot at some revenge when the historic sides meet in a rematch, not at a soccer cathedral such as Old Trafford or Camp Nou, but for a preseason friendly at FedEx Field in Landover.

“In [the Champions League final], yes, we played well, we dominated and we kept the ball, which is part of our philosophy,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi said Thursday via a translator. “I think we were better. But in the future, you just don’t know.”

The two clubs boast history unparalleled by any American sporting institution. The world’s richest sports franchise, with a net worth of $1.86 billion according to Forbes magazine, Manchester United have won 19 English league titles since being founded in 1848. Barcelona, in existence since 1899, has compiled 21 league championships in Spain.

In recent years, United have enjoyed renewed dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in English soccer history, winning four of the past five English Premier League crowns.

This current Barcelona squad, meanwhile, has built a case for being one of the top teams of all time, having won three consecutive La Liga titles, the 2008-09 Copa del Rey and — most notably — two Champions League finals, including a 3-1 victory over United at London’s Wembley Stadium in late May.

“In everyone’s mind, they’re the best team in the world,” Ferguson said. “Our challenge is to get to that level.”

In 2010, all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, given to the world’s top player, belonged to Barcelona: Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi.

Messi, who has claimed the Ballon d’Or back-to-back years, is resting after spending the past month representing Argentina in South America’s Copa America tournament and is not with his team. For the same reason, Brazilian defender Dani Alves, Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano and recently signed Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez also were left behind.

“He deserves a vacation. It’s clear we need him for the long season we have ahead of us, so it makes sense for him to rest,” Barcelona center back Gerard Pique said of Messi. “This season is really hard and really long, and we have to play a lot of games. So definitely, you can feel it in your legs, you can feel it in your body.”

That’s not to say Barcelona won’t be packing plenty of firepower. Manager Josep Guardiola’s travel roster includes seven of the 11 players who started the Spain national team’s win in the 2010 World Cup final: defenders Pique and Carles Puyol, midfielders Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and forwards David Villa and Pedro.

On the United side, forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, a 23-year-old Mexican sensation who scored 20 goals in all competitions last year, will not play after suffering a concussion in training Tuesday.

But United will not suffer from a lack of depth. The players on Ferguson’s squad for this U.S. tour include lockdown center backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs, and lethal strikers Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov, as well as prized offseason acquisitions Phil Jones and Ashley Young.

“These tours are fantastic for team spirit and understanding the personalities of each other,” Ferguson said of meshing the newcomers with his established core. “The teams that bring out strong personalities can be the best teams.”

The meeting is the final leg of United’s American tour, during which the Red Devils have won all four of their games, including a 4-0 victory over the MLS All-Stars on Wednesday in Harrison, N.J. Barcelona, on the other hand, is just beginning its spell stateside, which also includes friendly matches against Mexican sides Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America.

There is little doubt, though, that Saturday’s nearly sold-out contest in Landover will be the marquee matchup.

“For the moment, they are the best team in the world,” United left back Patrice Evra said of Barcelona. “For Manchester players, it is difficult to accept that because you want to be the best in the world. And that’s why you want to play against a team like that and make sure you beat them.”

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