Champions League Final Prelude

One of the greatest sporting events I ever attended was the 1999 Champions League Final at Camp Nou in Barcelona in which Manchester United faced a very strong Bayern Munich team. That Bayern Munich side featured some of the greatest German players in recent memory, with a world class core led by captain and goaltender Oliver Kahn, sweeper Lothar Matthaus, central midfielder Stefan Effenberg, and striker Carsten Jancker. Manchester United were significantly hampered that night by the suspension of two of their most influential players, central midfielders Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Instead they were led by captain and goaltender Peter Schmeichel playing in his last game, with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, both then in their prime, playing out of position to cover for Keane and Scholes.

The Germans got out in front early on a low swerving free kick by Mario Basler in the sixth minute. They then played a well-organized shut-down defensive game, allowing Manchester United to control possession with little threat and responding periodically on counter attack to keep things tense and interesting. Time passed, the beer flowed, and the German fans’ singing got louder and louder, their faces redder and redder. As the game reached the later stages, the effectiveness of the German defense looked certain to preserve their 1-0 lead.  Then United skipper Alex Ferguson made the first of two critical substitutions by bringing Teddy Sheringham on in a central midfield role and moving Beckham to his more natural right wing position. Shortly thereafter he brought on super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to replace Andy Cole up front. As the clock reached full-time with the German singing reaching deafening levels, the official signaled for three additional minutes of injury time. Almost immediately, United won a corner. Beckham took the kick and floated it to Giggs who struck poorly but fortuitously to Sheringham who scored the equalizer at 90:36. It looked like the game would go into extra time and maybe penalty kicks, but within 30 seconds from the ensuing kickoff, United won another corner. Beckham again took the kick, this time directed it to Sheringham who headed downward, where notorious poacher Solskjaer was waiting to stick out his foot and poke it in. Having been behind for 85 minutes, Man United had managed to pull off a stunning comeback. There is no more vivid sports memory for me than seeing 45,000 suddenly sober, silent and ashen-faced Germans.

Today is the 2011 Champions League Final at Wembley Stadium, with Manchester United facing Barcelona, two teams that have consistently given my Chelsea team the Champions League blues.  I will not be there. But it should be a great game featuring the English and Spanish champions, two of the most entertaining offensive football teams in the world, each of whom has appeared in the final twice in the last five years, including once against each other two years ago (won by Barca 2-0). Barcelona features three of the top players in the game today with Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and of course Lionel Messi (over 50 goals this year), who many consider to be one of the greatest of all time. Man United lack the star power of prior years and still rely on some aging players, but they possess an excellent up-front combination of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez as well as the managerial skill of wily Sir Alex Ferguson. They should of course also benefit from the home field advantage of playing at Wembley. I’ll be watching on TV in Florida with my parents and daughter. Enjoy the game. Let’s talk tomorrow. Postscript: Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1.

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