Purists set for dream finalWednesday 17 May 2006
If Paris is the city of romance, then football lovers will have the opportunity of a public display of affection on Wednesday evening when FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC meet in the UEFA Champions League final at the Stade de France.
The match brings together two of club football's most attractive teams with the newly-crowned Spanish champions having scored 114 goals in all competitions this season, while Arsenal's progress to their first European Champion Clubs' Cup showpiece has been most notable for a record-breaking ten successive clean sheets and the elimination of Real Madrid CF, Juventus and Villarreal CF. The game pits the tournament's best attack against its most formidable defence, with Barcelona's 12 games having brought 22 goals while Arsenal have been breached just twice overall.
Barça have reason for caution, however. The last time they were involved in a UEFA Champions League final that was a classic-in-the-making, against AC Milan in 1994, they lost 4-0 – and they have lifted the trophy only once in their illustrious history, in 1992. Frank Rijkaard, who is bidding to become only the fifth man to claim the prize as player and coach, is in relaxed mood, though, saying: "We're just happy to be here, history doesn't weigh heavily on us right now. All we can do is work hard to achieve good results and try to make the fans proud of us. No more, no less. Arsenal are a good team with great players and it's interesting to have two worthy opponents in the final."
Rijkaard may have Lionel Messi available again after two months out with a thigh injury sustained in the second leg of the first knockout round victory against Chelsea FC. He refutes the idea that knocking out a side that finished the English Premiership season 24 points above Arsenal gives Barça an edge. "A final is a unique occasion. Arsenal are a high-level team with lots of quality and I don't believe in psychological advantages. That's dangerous. Let's just show how we can play." The Dutchman also offers a glimpse into the philosophy that makes his team so popular, explaining: "Football is a serious game but the term 'game' means you should also try to enjoy it. There should be joy on the pitch. If you take it too seriously, it becomes a job. Team spirit, tactics and public perception are all important but you must find a balance between enjoyment and work."
Arsène Wenger would seem to share that approach, although a switch to 4-5-1 in this UEFA Champions League campaign is evidence of the Arsenal manager's more pragmatic side, something he is keen to emphasise. "Of course it would be fantastic if it was a classic but we are a little bit selfish and we want to win," admitted the Frenchman, who believes his charges have drawn strength from their defensive excellence. "In a final, it's very important you can rely on a strong defence. It gives you the belief to exploit every opportunity you get."
With a new trophy on offer to the winners following Liverpool FC's fifth victory in Istanbul last May, Wenger says being crowned kings of Europe would be the perfect way to confirm his young side's remarkable development over the last few months. "The belief in our team was diminished at the start of the season and we had to rebuild our confidence, but I always had belief in the team. That has been lonely at times but we have humility, hunger, strength, togetherness and of course talent. We have peaked at the right moment and want to finish the job." The stage is set for a classic.
• The two finalists will enjoy significant financial benefit from their successful runs to the Paris showpiece. If they win at the Stade de France, Arsenal are guaranteed revenue of around €37.3m; if they finish as runners-up, they will pick up approximately €34.7m. Success for Barcelona means approximately €31.5m in total revenue. If the Spanish club lose, their income will amount to close to €28.9m. Included in the total for participating in the final, the UEFA Champions League winners will collect approximately €6.4m, with the runners-up receiving approximately €3.8m.
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