Early Doors

Two men on the verge of history

Early Doors

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In his pre-match press conference at Wembley on Friday, Alex
Ferguson stuck to the first rule of public speaking: always open with a gag.

When asked if he could feel the weight of history on his
shoulders as he seeks to emulate Manchester United's 1968 European Cup victory
on the same ground, the Glaswegian quipped: "Well, it's certainly not
Hampden Park." OK, so it wasn't much of a gag.

For the most part, Ferguson's demeanour was typical of the
obvious joy he derives from big European nights. He could not resist indulging
in a bit of unnecessary hyperbole as he faced the world's media, flanked by
henchmen Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

"This could be best final of the decade. The attraction
of these two teams is obvious," he said. "Anything could happen
tomorrow. There could be lots of goals, a lot of excitement. There'll be a lot
of good football."

One question from a Chinese journalist asking if the match
will be enough to keep those watching in Shanghai and Beijing awake was
politely given short shrift. Another delivered in Catalan got a more terse
"I have no idea what you're talking about", but on the whole Ferguson
looked like a man right where he wanted to be, going into a big match with a
point to prove.

And they simply do not come any bigger than a Champions
League final against Barcelona. The point that needs proving is that Barcelona
are not as superior as their 2-0 win n Rome in 2009 suggests. But then, you
already knew that.

For his part, Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola is also committed
to making this final a truly great one.

He said: "We have to play for the audience and we have
to show why we are so good. We will try to play the best final possible."

Unlike Ferguson, who came out with his players, Guardiola
only took the stage after Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes had faced the media
together, just as the pair did before their victorious 2006 and 2009 final
appearances. Even the best team in the world is entitled to a little
superstition.

For all the world class talent at his disposal, Pep made
constant reference not only to Johan Cruyff's famed Barca 'Dream Team' of the
early 1990s, but also to Ferguson and his players.

"United have bought an enormous young player. I am
convinced that he will be an important player for the next years in
United," he said of Javier Hernandez, who will surely partner Wayne Rooney
up front, leaving Premier League top scorer Dimitar Berbatov on the bench
mentally replaying his last European goal, getting on for three years ago.

It is, of course, easy to marvel over the statistics
incurred by Barca as a whole and Lionel Messi and Xavi in particular. But it
never gets old.

By way of scratching the surface, here are just a couple:

Messi has scored at a rate quicker than a goal a game in
this season's competition, and is on course to become the first player to
finish as top scorer in three consecutive European Cup campaigns.

Xavi has touched the ball, on average, more than 120 times
per match so far in this season's cmpetition, and of the 1,167 passes he has
made, he has completed 94 per cent of them.

But more than enough has been said about the players. It is
the two coaches who are both deserve praise as they stand on the verge of their
respective historic achievements.

After knocking rivals Liverpool off their perch by claiming
a record 19th league title, Ferguson is now looking to strike another major
blow in the name of all Mancunia by equalling Bob Paisley's haul of three
European Cups.

It took Paisley just four years of his nine-year reign at
Anfield to complete that treble, but in this day and age to do the same in 12
years with what almost amounts to three different teams should certainly be
seen as a comparable feat.

Guardiola, on the other hand, is looking to win his second
Champions League crown in only his third year as a first-team coach. That is
something unheard of since Jose Villalonga did the same by leading Real Madrid
to the first two ever European Cups in the 1950s.

To barge your way to the top table of international club
managers in such a short space of time is incredible. Having a clutch of the
best players in the world helps, of course, then so does the wealth and name
which went with Ferguson's job when he took it 25 years ago and began building
his own fearsome dynasty.

Whichever comes out on top tonight, they will thoroughly
deserve their exalted place among the true greats, and would probably be joined
by the other sooner rather than later anyway.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"Harry is one of those managers that has the skills to do well everywhere.
I don't know if Harry Redknapp is the type of manager Chelsea is looking for
but, with his quality, nobody can doubt him." - Former Chelsea great
Gianfranco Zola reckons Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp is the man to be let
loose with Roman Abramovich's billions.

FOREIGN VIEW:
"To accuse Blatter of corruption is complete rubbish. If I was voting I
would vote for Blatter." - FIFA president Sepp Blatter may be facing an
ethics investigation alongside election rival Mohamed bin Hammam after
football's governing body widened its inquiry into bribes-for-votes
allegations, but he has found one ardent supporter - Vladimir Putin.

COMING UP: Well,
do we really have to tell you? Follow live coverage of Barcelona v Manchester
United from 14:00, with kick-off at 19:45, plus live tweets from @tony_mabert
from the ground.

Before that, however, you can also find out what happens in
the League Two play-off final - Stevenage v Torquay United. Any money there are
more goals at Old Trafford than at Wembley this evening.

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