The entire European football season boils down to this night, The UEFA Champions League Final. A season of blood, sweat and toil would either come to fruition or be rendered null and void. It is on nights such as this that heroes are made, legacies built and the absolute greats etch their names onto the history books. Juventus and Barcelona face-off in a winner takes it all showdown; the trophy is but a mere sideshow to a place in history. Barcelona are looking to be the first team to win the treble twice whereas Juventus aspire to become the 8th club in history to win the treble.
Juventus, also known as the “Old Lady” are literally filled with players on the wrong side of 30. In Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Carlos Tevez and Patrice Evra they have excellent players who might not get another chance to feature on the big night. Barcelona on the other hand, is filled with players on the right side of 30 and at the peak of their powers. Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez are destined to feature in many more finals. Under such circumstances, Juventus would just be the hungrier team on the field.
The Berlin final is not just a clash of teams, but a clash of ideology. Juventus, like all Italian teams, rely on a water-tight defense. If they win, it’s not going to be a goal fest but most likely a solitary goal slugfest filled with hard tackles and a match fought squarely in the mid-field. Barcelona on the other hand play a brand of free flowing attacking football. If they get on a roll, the match is going to be one-sided rout. In Neymar, Suarez, Iniesta, a not-at-his-peak Xavi and a majestic Messi at the height of his powers; Barcelona are going to be hard to stop.
Not just playing style, no other final in recent years has been a clash between teams on paths of divergent credibility as this. Juventus had to face humiliation due to the Italian match fixing scandal of the mid-2000s and were relegated to the second division of Italian football. They were even stripped of their Serie A title. While the charges remain unproven, the stigma still retains. Barcelona, on the other hand has grown to be most loved global team over the last decade. Pep Guardiola’s philosophy of “Tiki Taka” football, the Spanish national team’s international success and Messi magic has contributed to their rising stock. They have been involved in UNO programs due to their attacking football and apparent free play.
The matchup also features many giants of “The Beautiful Game” and numerous World Cup winners. Messi is obviously the first name that features in such discussions but Iniesta, Buffon, Tevez, Neymar and Luis Suarez are no lightweights. Above all this is the last time, Europe would witness the two best midfielders of the post-Zidane generation before they take a retirement paycheck in the US or the Middle East, Xavi and Pirlo.
Pirlo is a virtuoso on the field, who doesn’t break a jog yet tears apart defenses. He stays unnoticed and yet conjures the match winning passes. He has the rare ability to break a match, yet stay under the radar. If there’s one match which defines Pirlo, it’s the 2006 World Cup final. Zidane headbutted Materazzi and lost a bit of shiny halo around him. Materazzi became the butt of all jokes. The incident was discussed extensively over the next few months. No one cared to discuss Pirlo’s brilliance and influence. Here’s a player who won the WC for his country yet didn’t get the deserved appreciation, in cricketing terms he’s like the underappreciated Rahul Dravid. Xavi, on the other hand has been the single most influential footballer of the last decade, his best days coincide with his team’s best. It’s no wonder that the most successful over the time period has been Spain and Barcelona the most successful club. A master of the “Tiki Taka” passing game, he’s the midfield rock around whom the team revolves. He makes the likes of Iniesta, Messi, Fernando Torres and David Villa look good. Also his worst days coincide with Spain’s and Barcelona’s worst performance.
I firmly believe that the mid-fielders, like the middle order batsmen in cricket, are the most influential players on the field. The strikers have the goals to show for their efforts as do openers in cricket conjure one century after another; but it’s the mid-fielders and the middle order who usually are the difference between winning and losing. For as long as I have watched football Romario, Ryan Giggs, Peter Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Zinedine Zidane (the greatest of them all). Luis Figo, Patrick Viera, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Iniesta, Pirlo, Schweinsteiger have been my favourite footballers, all of them mid-fielders!
As a football fan, I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. Under normal circumstances, I would wish that Barcelona should win. But my two favourite footballers, Xavi and Pirlo are fighting it out on the opposite sides of the pitch, only one of them will emerge triumphant on their last play day on European soil. I would be disconsolate whichever team wins tonight, for my heart would go out to the other guy. May the best team win. And more importantly may my heroes put up a performances deserving of a final salvo.