Final flourishes hint at Wembley showdown being match made in heaven

The history of European Cup finals is littered with great players deciding great games – the latest should be no different

World Cup finals tend to be remembered more for their pageantry than their football. With the Champions League, and before that the European Cup, it has been the other way round. Manchester United and Barcelona will have the planet's attention on Saturday because the match has the capacity to enthral in a way that its international cousin would struggle to emulate.

For Sir Alex Ferguson's team playing at Wembey will surely be no small advantage. While Barcelona also won their first European Cup at this venue, United will be performing at a home from home.

This will be the 10th time that the best club tournament in the world is decided on a British ground. Wembley has staged five previous finals, Hampden Park three and Old Trafford one, the barren affair of 2003 when Milan beat Juventus on penalties. Yet if London is ahead on games Glasgow can claim to have the edge in entertainment.

The 1960 European Cup final, when the young Ferguson was among a Hampden crowd of 135,000 watching Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3, is regarded by many as the greatest game of football ever played. For one critic, Ivan Sharpe, it proved that "we must really take stock of the parlous plight into which our football has descended and now do something really practical about it ... This means sacrifice by the clubs for the good of the game at large." Yeah, right.

Watching the recording of that final now always leaves the impression that the pitch at Hampden must have been doubled in size, so much room did Alfredo Di Stéfano have as he ran the game. The reality was that in 1960 football had yet to be beset by the tight marking and denial of space that began to afflict it not long afterwards.

Yet on Saturday another Argentinian genius, Lionel Messi, will pose as big a threat to United as Di Stéfano was to Eintracht. Whereas Di Stéfano thrived on the plains of Hampden, Messi will be looking at Wembley for the odd square metre of space, which is often all he needs. A consistent feature of the European finals played in Britain has been the presence of at least one world-class footballer and the extent to which the opposition have managed to deal with him.

The 1963 final between Milan and Benfica brought Eusébio to Wembley, plus a modest crowd of 45,700, and the great man did give the Portuguese side the lead after 18 minutes only to find himself upstaged by a Brazilian, José Altafini, who scored twice in the second half to take the European Cup to Italy.

Five years later a Wembley crowd of twice the size expected to see George Best inspire Manchester United to victory over Benfica, which he did eventually in extra time. For the better part of that match, however, Best was subdued by a combination of ruthless tackling and an indulgent Italian referee, Concetto Lo Bello, and United's most influential player was John Aston on the opposite wing.

Wembley watched the young Johan Cruyff lead Ajax to a 2-0 victory over an outclassed Pananthinaikos in 1971, the first act of the Dutch team's European Cup hat-trick. In 1976 a Bayern Munich side packed with West German internationals, and captained by Franz Beckenbauer, with the prolific Gerd Müller up front, were expected to complete their trio of European Cup successes in imperious style when they met Saint-Etienne at Hampden. But the French side dominated the first half, with Dominique Bathenay hitting the bar, and were only beaten by a goal from Franz Roth just before the hour.

Liverpool's second successive European Cup triumph, at Wembley in 1978, was more about patience than panache as they strove to break down the packed defence of FC Bruges before Graeme Souness set up the winner for Kenny Dalglish. Barcelona found the going even harder against Sampdoria in 1992, Ronald Koeman relieving the tedium with a free-kick nine minutes from the end of extra-time.

In 2002, however, Hampden enjoyed a taste of 1960 when Real Madrid again met German opposition, Bayer Leverkusen, and took an early lead through Raúl only for Lúcio to equalise five minutes later. Then, on the stroke of half-time, Zinedine Zidane met a looping centre from Roberto Carlos on the edge of the penalty area before producing a marvellous left-footed volley into the top corner of the net.

Of such moments are the best European finals made. It is hard to believe that there will not be more of them on Saturday.

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