Barcelona fans seem more concerned about an ash cloud than about facing
Manchester United. Over 25,000 will travel to Wembley, with 35 planes chartered
along with 12 coaches, while the majority have made their own travel arrangements
by air. All are nervous about the potential disruption from an angry Icelandic
Barça's fears stem back to last
season when their team drove 14 hours to a Champions League semi-final game
against Internazionale. They lost.
The players didn't want to blame the coach
trip or their coach or even Inter parking the coach in front of heir goal, but
several talked of the stress of the journey.
So when Pep Guardiola gathered his
tracksuited lieutenants on the Camp Nou pitch on Monday night following a
training session, he looked understandably nervous. Maybe the decision about
whether to start Javier Mascherano or Eric Abidal in the centre of defence
alongside Gerard Pique was proving particularly vexing. That's the only genuine
question mark over his team selection, but Guardiola is a stickler for detailed
preparation and for his players enjoying peace of mind.
He's spent much of the last few
days analysing recent videos of the team he nearly joined in 2001. He also went
on trial to Manchester City four years later, but Stuart Pearce chose not to
offer him a contract. Those who trained with him like Andrew Cole claimed that
he still had the glorious touch and technique which had made him a mainstay of
the Barca side in the 1990s.
Guardiola later insisted that
Barca brought forward their travel plans two days. They flew to London at 10pm
on Tuesday night and will stay in a hotel by the Thames for five nights.
It's not quite so easy for the
fans to change their plans. A contingency alternative of 160 coaches has been
mooted, but if nothing else the ash cloud has created doubt. The 19-time
English champions haven't.
Most Barca fans assume that a
victory is assured. They feel that their side is the best in the world and that
they are better than they were when they dominated United in the Rome final two
years ago. They respect United greatly, but they can't see beyond a Barca
triumph and a dynasty to compare with Bayern Munich or Ajax in the 70s, with
Liverpool's four European Cups in eight seasons or Milan's back to back wins.
And, whisper it quietly, Real Madrid's five on the bounce.
The bookmakers' odds reflect
their mood and when 15 F1 drivers were polled ahead of Sunday's Spanish grand
prix near the Catalan capital, 12 predicted a Barca win at Wembley.
The Blaugrana's players are far
more measured in their tone. Many met the media on Monday evening and showed an
impressive depth of knowledge bordering on reverence of their opponents.
Perhaps they are hoping that their flattery will deceive, but there's half a
chance that the Wembley final could consist of little more than rivals shaking
hands and telling each other how great they are. Xavi loves Scholes, Rooney
loves Iniesta. Even Guardiola admires no coach more than Ferguson, although he
can't get his head around his longevity and a 25-year stint in a one job.
The Catalans' coach will guard
against over-confidence. He was part of a Barca team who won their first ever
European Cup at Wembley in 1992. Johann Cruyff's side were labelled the Dream
Team by an excitable media and they were favourites to win the 1994 Champions
League at Wembley. Instead, they were destroyed 4-0 by Milan.
The 2009 final in Rome was the
most one-sided since Milan's triumph in Athens, but Guardiola feels the defeat
could be to United's advantage. Privately, several United players are feeling
vengeful and felt humiliated when they watched a video of the Rome final for
the first time last week. Some are claiming to have learned lessons, others are
still baffled about what went wrong after Samuel Eto'o's 9th minute
goal in Olimpico.
The 2011 final is between the
most successful teams in European football of the last five years. United have
reached three finals of the last four, while it's Barça's third in six years.
The expectation is immense, with black market ticket prices of £1,500 the norm
in Manchester and Barcelona.
The two clubs enjoy healthy
relations at every level and visiting scouts are afforded the warmest welcomes,
but the love-in is likely to end the minute the whistle blows. That's if the
fans can beat the Norse gods and get to Wembley.
- Pep Guardiola
- Manchester United