LONDON - All the ingredients are in place for a classic Champions League Final at Wembley on Saturday when millions of fans around the world will settle down to dine on what should be a rare footballing feast.
Barcelona, champions of Spain, seeking their second European crown in three years after their victory over Manchester United in 2009, and United, Premier League champions in pursuit of their second in four having beaten Chelsea on penalties in 2008.
The coruscating passing patterns Barcelona have weaved to reach their second final in three years have brought them accolades from far and wide and not even the most dyed-in-the-wool dissenters have raised much objection to their being described as the best club team there has ever been.
Standing four-square in front of them are Manchester United, long vying with the Spaniards for the unofficial title of the world's most popular club and now returning to the site of their first European Cup 43 years ago, albeit a rebuilt Wembley.
Barcelona hold the ace in the pack in the shape of Lionel Messi, a giant of the sport to rank alongside the mighty triumvirate of Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff and scorer of an incredible 52 goals this season.
His second in the semi-final win over Real Madrid compares with the best of any of those great players and, having failed to live up to expectations at last year's World Cup, Messi is due a performance to grace the biggest of club stages.
Surrounding him is the bulk of Spain's World Cup and European Championship-winning team, players who have forged a bond of telepathic understanding that enables them to mesmerise world class opponents with the relentless speed and accuracy with which they fizz the ball between them.
United cannot claim to match those talents but the 2008 winners and Premier League champions have their own way of winning big matches.
The all-action, raw power of Wayne Rooney, the natural finishing of Javier Hernandez, the midfield energy of Park Ji-sung, the vast experience of Ryan Giggs, the granite defending of Nemanja Vidic and the reliable goalkeeping of Edwin van der Sar, making his final appearance before retiring at the age of 40, combine to make a formidable unit.
They also have Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who dragged the club back from their self-flagellating role as England's fallen giants into their current position as a team who expect to be challenging for, and winning, the Champions League every season.
Barcelona's fledgling but already hugely successful manager Pep Guardiola will relish pitting his wits against Ferguson, a man he respects and admires, but in truth his team virtually runs itself while it is the Scot who will have to come up with the answers on Saturday.
Ferguson's pride in the name of United will make it hard for him to go in to the match thinking of how to stop the opposition, but realistically that is their key task.
He knows United will get enough of the ball enough times to create problems, especially on the break, and that he has players of the right quality to take the chances that will come.
But in between there will be long spells of Barcelona dominance, triangles of crisp, one-touch passing and the constant probing of Messi.
How his players deal with that and where they allow it to happen will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
Manchester United: 1-Edwin van der Sar; 20-Fabio, 5-Rio Ferdinand, 15-Nemanja Vidic, 3-Patrice Evra; 25-Antonio Valencia, 16-Michael Carrick, 11-Ryan Giggs, 13-Park Ji-Sung; 10-Wayne Rooney, 14-Javier Hernandez.
Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Daniel Alves, 3-Gerard Pique, 5-Carles Puyol, 22-Eric Abidal; 16-Sergio Busquets, 6-Xavi, 8-Andres Iniesta; 17-Pedro, 10-Lionel Messi, 7-David Villa.comments