After a long season in Europe, we've had many teams reach new heights, as we saw Manchester City claim the FA Cup in England for their first trophy in 35 years and saw Lille win the French title for the first time in over 50 years. We also saw some teams return to familiar successes, as Milan triumphed in Italy once again for the 18th time, but for the first since 2004. Yet, there is still one game to be played that will be a defining game in the history for the season, and the two clubs involved.
The Champions League Final. The best of the best. The biggest game in world sport. Not only is it bigger than any Super Bowl, but it also is filled with more stars than a World Cup Final. Wembley Stadium will have the attention of those all around the world as Manchester United take on Barcelona this Saturday. Two teams, both looking to leave their imprint on history, will fight it out in what could be the most anticipated final in recent memory.
Manchester United overtook Liverpool as the most successful English club in history, with their 19th English league title. They held off the title charges of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City to do so. They did so with the help of the golden boot winner that only started 4 games in the league after Christmas, a £7 million scoring machine, a 40 year old goalkeeper and a midfield maestro in his 20th year with the first team. Yet, they feel like the biggest achievement is yet to come this season. This is how I see the team coming out:
Edwin Van der Sar - He will be playing his last game in a United jersey, as the 40 year old Dutchman is set to retire following this season. He has been one of United's best players this season, making saves that goalkeepers can only dream about. He has been the rock at the back of the United defense all season. Dealing with family issues off the field has been a concern to Edwin, as his wife has struggled with illness, yet he has been able to succeed beyond imagination to help United to the Champions League Final. He will be key to United's success at Wembley, and will do all he can to keep the likes of the Barcelona greats out of the United net.
Rafael da Silva - I think Rafael should start as United's right back, if he is fit enough to do so. He has shut down the likes of Torres, Anelka, Bale and Van der Vaart in England all season, and I don't see any reason why he wouldn't add Villa or Messi to that list. He is a very quick player and has gained the experience this year to solidify this position for years to come.
Nemanja Vidic - If it weren't for Messi and Ronaldo's unbelievable scoring records this season, I would say Vidic should be World Player of the Year. He has taken the armband this season for United, and been unbelievable this season in that role. He has been more calm than in previous seasons, but still has the desire and strength at the back to give any forward a rough go. He also has the ability to score off of set plays as demonstrated in his winning goal vs Chelsea this season.
Rio Ferdinand - Although Rio has been criticized over the last couple years for being injury plagued or not good enough to play for United anymore, he has re-established himself in this team for the big games and I expect he and Vidic to be strong at the back together. His desire is demonstrated all over the back line and he is a great leader in this team.
Patrice Evra - In my opinion, Patrice is the best left back in the world. No one has the pace that he does to get up with the midfielders but also defend with the ability the he does. His crossing ability will be important and although Barcelona do not have many weak links, their right back position, has not been the best this season. It will be important that once United win the ball, Evra get involved in the attack to create chances for those up front.
Antonio Valencia - Many thought Valencia's season could be over when he suffered severe ligament damage and a fractured ankle and was forced into immediate surgery to repair those injuries. However, he recovered very quickly and has been a much needed spark to United's end of season form. His crossing ability is unmatched in England, and he has the pace to beat any defender in a foot race. He also has the mentality and focus to defend, when needed, and this is the area in which I feel he gets the nod over Nani to start at Wembley.
Michael Carrick - Probably the most criticized United player since he was bought from Tottenham a few years back, Carrick has had by far his best season in a United shirt. His passing ability, but also his ability to plug up the middle will be very important against Barcelona. I expect him to play much more of a defending role in the midfield to stop the progress of Xavi and Iniesta, as well as their connections with Messi, Pedro and Villa up top. With the help of the two center backs, Carrick will be one of United's most important players on Saturday.
Ryan Giggs - What is there to say about a guy that has played 20 years for the United first team? A guy that has won a record 12 Premier League titles, and yet was one of the best players in England, again. He may be the greatest ever to play in a United shirt. Nearly 900 appearances, and he is still going strong. His experience will be needed out on the pitch against Barcelona. He will look to win the ball off the Barcelona midfield, but as chances may be limited, he will combine with Rooney and the other United midfielders to take advantage of any Barcelona slip ups. His pace, at age 37, is remarkable and he will play a key role as he looks for his 3rd European Cup.
Ji-Sung Park - The energizer bunny of the team, Park seems to be running for 90 minutes, and never gets tired. His performance against Chelsea in the league, just two weeks ago, will be seen as one of the best in his career. He was always involved in tackles around the pitch, the first to the ball in nearly every circumstance and his ability to make some unbelievable passes was also shown, as United took the points that day. If they want to do the same against Barcelona, United will look to Park to get into the Barcelona midfield and disrupt Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets as they look to break down the United midfield. Park's energy will be important but he has also been known to score some big time goals in recent years (Liverpool, AC Milan, Arsenal, Chelsea) and could prove to have the decisive touch, come Saturday night.
Wayne Rooney - After a very slow start to the season, and the controversy about whether he would stay or go, to Manchester City of all teams, Rooney has found the form that United has been searching for, to help this team to the Final. Rio Ferdinand recently said, "We won the league the day that Rooney signed his new contract." He is so vital to this team, and although he has been a striker in the past, Wayne has found a new role in the team as somewhat of a withdrawn forward. I see him playing this same role on Saturday, in attempt to plug the Barcelona midfield as much as possible, but also as a quick link going forward with the United midfield, as soon as they win the ball.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez - Having been signed from Chivas for a whopping £7 million last summer, Chicharito was seen as a player to play much of this season in the Reserve team, hoping to adapt to England and the style of this game, with the chance of playing a few games. However, he has burst onto the scene in flying form and has 20 goals in all competitions. His finishing ability is second to none at the club and seems to have a nose for goal that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once possessed for the club. At only 22 years, he has a long way to go, but this game is by far the biggest of his career. His humility and love for the team has set him on the right path at this great club. Puyol and Pique will have a hard time keeping him under wraps at Wembley.
Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Thomas Kuszczak, Chris Smalling, Nani, Paul Scholes, Anderson - I see a very attack oriented bench in case we have to chase the game late on against Barcelona. Those not included that may be on the bench come Saturday are Fabio da Silva, Darren Fletcher, Johnny Evans, or John O'Shea.
Sir Alex Ferguson - There is not much to say about Sir Alex, that hasn't been said somewhere else. But, he is the greatest manager of all time. Over 35 trophies with United, including 2 European Cups (1999, 2008). He is the master of getting the best out of a team. Many people have said that this United team "is the worst United team in recent memory," or that they "lack the firepower to win anything." Well, they won the record 19th title, and they are in the European Cup Final. Most of this can be attributed to the manager. There are none better than him, and he will have the tough task of fielding a team against this Barcelona side, "possibly the greatest football team of all time."
What an occasion it will be on Saturday, at Wembley. Manchester United, looking to claim the European Cup for the 4th time, 42 years after they did so at Wembley with the likes of Best, Charlton and Law. This United side looks to go down in the record books.