Published May 27, 2011
LONDON – Wembley's twin towers are long gone but the memories of European glory remain for Manchester United and Barcelona, who return to the scene of their first continental triumphs.
"You could feel the history at the old Wembley," said United's 37-year-old midfielder Ryan Giggs, who has played in both the old and new stadiums. "Obviously it's different now but it's Wembley, probably the most famous stadium in the world. It's the home of football."
The Welshman had just broken in with United when Barcelona was winning its first European Cup at Wembley in 1992, but wasn't even born when Matt Busby's United team triumphed in 1968.
"Playing at Wembley provides so much history," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who was part of the 1992 squad. "But that is mostly from the old ground."
That both United and Barcelona have each won only two further titles since lifting the cup at the London venue remains one of club soccer's bewildering statistics.
Even winning the Champions League final on Saturday would move United or Barcelona only into a tie with Bayern Munich and Ajax with four titles, still trailing Liverpool (5), AC Milan (7) and Real Madrid (9) on Europe's roll of honor.
"We've only won it three times, which is not enough for this club," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "We should have won the European Cup more times and although we've been in the Champions League final three times in four years, we should have done better in previous years."
Ferguson has enjoyed two successes — in 1999 against Bayern Munich and 2008 against Chelsea — since United became the first club to win the competition under fellow Scotsman Busby in 1968.
The 4-1 victory over Benfica at Wembley came a decade after the Munich air disaster killed eight members of the team and delayed the club's bid for European domination.
"(United) are references on a world level, not just for us, but for all football in general," Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. "They have been playing for many years at an extraordinary level, have won many trophies, they have been competing consistently, getting to Champions League semifinals and finals. They are on a spectacular level."
Barcelona had to wait even longer than United to conquer the continent, with Guardiola just starting out with the team when they beat Sampdoria 1-0.
"In 1992, we thought that we would never play a European Cup final again — I want my players to feel the same," the 40-year-old Guardiola said. "We cannot waste this opportunity. We are so lucky to be in a final. We have to be conscious of the fact that although we have played two finals in the last three years, we could go another 20 years without making it to another.
"The older players in the squad can remember what it's like to go four or five years without winning anything."
Although, since the former captain took charge of the team in 2008, Barcelona has won a hat trick of La Liga titles, the Spanish Cup twice, the Copa del Rey, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup, which was a result of beating United in the 2009 Champions League final.
It was in Rome's Stadio Olimpico where Barcelona truly upstaged United with a 2-0 victory rounded off by Lionel Messi on his way to winning the first of two world player of the year titles.
Another ruthless attacking display from the 23-year-old Argentina forward could confirm his status as one of the greats — if not the greatest player — of all-time.
Quite how United will thwart Messi this time is the conundrum it faces, having seen him net 52 goals this season already.
"You watch the games and see Barcelona on TV and they obviously have fantastic players," United defender Rio Ferdinand said. "If you try to mark one player out of their team, you still have another 10 to contend with."
And then there's the passing "carousel" in midfield — as Ferguson memorably dubbed it — with playmakers Andres Iniesta and Xavi trying "to make you dizzy" with their passing.
"You have to realize they are a talented team," said Giggs. "Then you have to try to stamp your authority on the game and play the way you do. Manchester United are all about attacking football, about scoring more goals than the other team, and that will never change."
But this has been the season of Wayne Rooney failing to live up to the high standards he set for himself last year, when he netted 34 goals before personal and injury problems took their toll on United's star striker.
Only recently has the England international rediscovered his goal-scoring touch to lift his tally to 15 this season.
"I will have to concentrate hard to not give him space," said Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who left United in 2008. "I have a good friendship with him but we both want to win this game and we will be fighting for our own interests."
Unlike in 2009, the Red Devils are going into the match as underdogs.
"Everyone says Barcelona are the best team in the world now. I respect that," United defender Patrice Evra said. "But two years ago everyone said we were going to beat Barcelona easily in Rome. Maybe the opposite will happen this time.
"The night of a Champions League game is magic and I can still remember the feeling when we won (in 2008), but to lose is a very bad feeling."
Failure again for United on the European stage against Barcelona would derail the 69-year-old Ferguson's bid for a third European Cup success to match Bob Paisley's record with Liverpool, from 1977 to '81.
"He knows what these games are about, the whole history," Guardiola said. "He's always been at the top. He's one of the greats."