The old Empire Stadium was good to both of these grand clubs. In 1968, United won their first European Cup there against Benfica, a beatific light shining down on Matt Busby, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes as they paraded Busby's holy grail around the other-worldly, wide-open spaces of Wembley, ten years after the horrors of Munich. Twenty four years later, Johan Cruyff's Dream Team bested Sampdoria in the same atmospheric arena, finally landing Barcelona their first European Cup after decades of living in Real Madrid's shadow.
Sadly, the old dump we knew and loved is no more, replaced by this soulless pile. Never mind, we'll all have to make the best of it. It's about time someone sprinkled some stardust on this new stadium - nothing particularly memorable has happened here yet, save Croatia popping over to riff on Steve McClaren's pain that time - and with both Barcelona and Manchester United having 100 percent European Cup form here, perhaps tonight's the night.
One last minor historical point: This is the first European Cup final to be held at Wembley featuring either Barcelona or Manchester United not to have a player called Eusebio in one of the starting line-ups. That's not very interesting, is it? I can only apologise, it's all I've got.
Kick off: 7.45pm in the British summer money.
Further reading while you wait: There's plenty of comment on this site ahead of the game, but if you're desirous of a modern Manchester United classic, I'll point you no further than the excellent On The Road by Daniel Harris. A fine read, and you don't need to take my word for it, it's already had the thumbs up from our very own Rob Smyth and Daniel Taylor.
Further further reading while you wait: OK, OK, it's not about football, but the subject did support Manchester United.
Anyway, the game. Although the Spanish champions and purveyors of the finest tiki-taka are the firm favourites, nobody in their right mind would write off an Alex Ferguson side. Or a Manchester United one, for that matter. So expect this to be close. Closer even than the 2009 final in Rome between these two sides, which nobody thought was particularly close at all until this week, when nearly 1,000 articles explaining that it was actually a bit closer than you remember have been published. Hmm. But why should it be close? Here's why: David Pleat's plan to beat Barca.
Here's another plus point for United: The pressure really is on Barca to deliver tonight, and not just because everybody expects them to win. Consider this: if they lose this match, their claim to be The Best Club Side In The History Of All Football, Ever will be up in smoke. For good. They'll have let Manchester United win twice as many European Cups during their imperial phase - the 2006 win was by a different team - and that's no way to be building a legacy. Passing it around nicely is all good and well, but the greatest sides repeatedly put the silver in the cabinet. Look at Arsenal.
On the other hand: United are possibly facing The Best Club Side In The History Of All Football, Ever.
Barcelona club captain Carles Puyol doesn't start, with Javier Mascherano taking his place in central defence: Valdes, Alves, Mascherano, Pique, Abidal, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Subs: to come
Premier League top scorer Dimitar Berbatov doesn't even make the Manchester United bench: Van der Sar, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez.
Subs: Kuszczak, Owen, Anderson, Smalling, Nani, Scholes, Fletcher.
Roy Keane is one of ITV1's pundits. Oh ho ho ho. Here's a kwik kwiz, just for fun, no prizes, don't be wasting your money by phoning up. If Manchester United lose by more than two goals tonight, will the remaining pieces of the ITV studio, post Keane's analysis, be big enough to: (a) be put in an average-sized bin (eg the 48l Addis roll-top); (b) be sieved through a tennis racket; (c) be sieved through the gusset of a pair of 70-denier tights; (d) be spotted from the window of Guardian Towers, Kings Cross as they arc across the capital's skyline, propelled by the steam from Roy's lugs? This situation has the potential for some fine watchin'.
A proper journalist writes. "We've had a lesson already in the brutality of top managers," opines Kevin McCarra, of Big Paper fame. "Puyol is a bit slow and has had an injury, but ditched? Berbatov is less of a shock but had he had made seven appearances in the Champions League this season. Cometh the hour, cometh the Owen (on the bench any way)." Well, via the medium of Twitter, little Mickey has been insisting for a while now that he's got "an important goal in him" this season. Presumably he's not counting scoring a fourth against Blackpool, so that leaves tonight. The script is written for a last-minute winner, scored as he shanks the ball up into his own face and into the net, then celebrated as though he's just recreated his 1998 effort against Argentina. You read it here first, which probably means it's a theory best ignored.
The teams will be out in a minute or two, so there's just time for this open letter to Pep Guardiola, from MBM reader
Gyles Brandreth Rajit Ojha:
I want to ensure that you FC the UK tonight. You may need more than a club to Messi Man U up real bad. Try and ensure that the smart Alex gets sent off in a fit of Pique. That is sure to Puyol on the pressure further.
Imogen how Giggs will feel if reminded that he has violated the model code of conduct. Or Masch could distract them with a Pedro joke for which I will remain Alves grateful.
Los Diablos Rojos may be tough cookies – but you are no crumbly Busquets. If Andres is the Victor of the midfield battles, Scholes will only be able to shoot in Wayne from midfield. Just because you sponsor a children's charity doesn't mean that Xavi should be kind to the Nani.
Also, Man U can't park the bus in front of the goal – they only have a Van. The keys to which are rumored to have been left behind at the Villa.
Bitter Pool Fan sprawled on a Barcalounger
All that effort, and it was just because you wanted to showcase your spectacular Giggs puns, wasn't it?
Four beefeaters, or whatever you call those dudes who wear busbies, take the European Cup out and pop it on its plinth. The first two carry the cup, the second the perspex table. The second two must be gutted, what a rum job. The teams follow them, and line up with the mascots. Lionel Messi looks very relaxed. And so does Wayne Rooney, who's smiling away. The music being pumped out as this all goes on is, needless to say, appalling. The first track is possibly the b-side to The Final Countdown by Europe. The second is a remixed version of the Champions League anthem, We've Violated Handel, which I think might have been remixed by Enya. Dear God alive. We'll be going in seconds.
And we're off! United, playing in white shirts and black shorts, kick off and hoof the ball out of play on the right almost immediately. They soon win the ball back, Rooney pelting down the left and hoisting a ball into the area. Valdes plucks it from the sky with ease. There's some atmosphere.
2 min: Sergio Busquets is down holding his face. In fairness, he's within his rights, as Carrick's just welted the ball onto his head from close range. "The team sheets reveal one black cloud on Barcelona's horizon," suggests Lou Roper. "Although it is wonderful that Abidal has recovered from his health scare, he is ponderous even when fit; Valencia (the world's greatest one-legged player) may have considerable joy tonight unless he can be compelled to use his left boot for purposes other than running and standing (this would constitute a Big News Item)."
3 min: A really bright start by Manchester United here. Hernandez is snapping away in the tackle, and nearly sets Rooney up on the edge of the area. But not quite: Pique is on hand to clear. Barcelona haven't managed to string anything together yet; they're not looking nervous, but much more of this high-tempo stuff from United, and they might do soon enough.
5 min: "Solid body language from Vidic at the front of the United line-up in the tunnel," reckons Sean Boiling. "Whereas I thought Xavi looked nervous." Well, as Wembley reverberates to the piercing sound of whistles, Valdes hacks the ball out of play. Then Park slides in on Messi to win the ball, though his hoick forward catches Hernandez offside. This is very impressive stuff by United, who have flown out of the blocks.
7 min: A peach of a pass by Carrick, dinked over the Barca back line from the left wing in an attempt to set the busy Hernandez free down the inside-right. The striker's offside. Barca can't get hold of the ball at all.
8 min: Rooney causes Mascherano all manner of bother as the pair chase a long, high ball from Van der Sar down the inside-left channel. Valdes is forced to run to the edge of his area and punch clear. "I'm not neutral, I want them both to lose," begins Linda Howard, very promisingly indeed. "I'm going to a pre-Memorial Day cook-out where absolutely no-one will have this match on their minds - Manchester who? - yet I'll be twitching a bit knowing that it's going on and that somebody will have to win. Horrible feeling, this. Not as horrible as actually mourning someone on Memorial Day I suppose. More beer and hot dogs for Ms. Sunshine over here (twitch-twitch)."
9 min: Barcelona string two passes together! Well done, Barca! Well done!
10 min: Barca are a jittery mess. Hernandez is nearly set free down the middle. Pique has it covered, but nearly pokes the ball past Valdes, who is advancing to clear himself. The pair are right next to each other, and Pique's nervous prod is immediately whacked back upfield by an irate keeper. Hoof! Hoof! The two thuds are almost immediate, like a very short drum'n'bass track.
11 min: And yet it's Barca who nearly carve out the first chance, in the 2009 sucker-punch style. Messi turns and dinks a ball down the inside-left channel, giving Villa a split second in the area. He can't get his shot away, though, and a United challenge sees the ball blocked out for a corner. In the true English style, the corner is wasted, a complete waste of time.
14 min: After being hit by that whirlwind start, Barca have settled a bit. A lot of passing around. An awful lot of it. Villa turns on the right-hand edge of the United area and slips Xavi free down the right. The ball's whipped in low, where Pedro sidefoots wide right from six yards or so. That's an amazing miss, played out to almost total silence as Wembley collectively sucks its teeth.
17 min: Iniesta saunters past Carrick, with two other United players afraid to make a challenge as Spain's World Cup winner advances towards the box. His attempt to spring Pedro clear down the left is too heavy, and the danger's gone. But Barcelona have finally turned up.
18 min: Messi dances past four or five challenges in double-quick time, having started his run by nutmegging Carrick. The attempted little flick to release Pedro doesn't come off. "I find myself watching contemporary dance instead of the match," writes Gary Naylor, timing his run perfectly. "Probably not so different really."
20 min: Villa, 20 yards out, drops a shoulder and sends a low shot towards the bottom-right corner. Van der Sar, in his final match, parries brilliantly.
21 min: Villa, on the right-hand edge of the box, looks for the bottom-left corner. Van der Sar is down well to snaffle, but only in the nick of time, the ball for a split second looking like it had passed the keeper on its way to the corner. United are up against it now.
23 min: A goal-saving tackle by Vidic, who denies Messi just as the Barca genius had burst into the area down the inside-right channel. That's majestic. This is all Barcelona now. One positive sign for United is that Barca appear hell-bent on walking the thing into the net; twice one of their players has had possession in the United area in the last couple of mintues (first Villa, then Pedro), and twice they've attempted elaborate flicks to open United up like a tin can, when an agricultural hoof might have paid dividends.
25 min: Rooney and Giggs both overplay as they shuttle the ball out of defence. The ball's soon lost, and Messi's soon bearing down on the area again. This time it's Ferdinand's time to make a last-ditch challenge. Messi rolls around on the floor in frustration, before beating the turf in frustration.
26 min: United calm it down with a bit of possession. They've not seen much of the ball during the last quarter of an hour.
27 min: WELL, THIS HAS BEEN COMING. Barcelona 1-0 Manchester United. And how simple. Xavi dribbles towards the United box. He draws four United players, then flicks a pass out to Pedro, who romps into the box down the inside-right channel and passes a confident effort into the bottom-right corner.
29 min: A mountain to climb for United, then. Shades of 2009, in that the opening goal has visibly deflated them. Barcelona are looking very assured, keeping the ball very well, like that's news.
32 min: A couple of half-arsed sorties upfield for United. Evra's upended down the left, but the free kick is witlessly humped into the area, allowing Pique enough time to chest the ball down and amble off with it. "Watching the match thus far, I note that Ryan Giggs has found the anonymity he's been seeking." Ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands together for Mr John Dalby, he's here all week, try the paella.
34 min: OUT OF NOTHING, BUT WHAT A GOAL! Barcelona 1-1 Manchester United. It's lucky John Dalby got his Giggs gag in a couple of minutes back. Rooney drives forward, rolls the ball to Giggs in the Barca area down the inside right, and runs onto a square-pass return, sidefooting powerfully into the top-left corner from the penalty spot. What a delicious finish! Valdes had no chance, the ball bending away from him. What a game-changer this could be, because United were really on the ropes there. One small thing, though: Giggs was half a yard offside as Rooney played the ball forward to him. There will no doubt be more on this should United win.
37 min: Xavi has a dig from the edge of the area, but it's useless, spooned over as he falls backwards. It's going to be very interesting to see how Barcelona respond to Rooney's goal, because they were totally bossing the game before it went in.
38 min: A lot of Barcelona passing again, but there's slightly less snap in it at the moment. United, on the other hand, look much more solid.
39 min: Now Iniesta takes a whack from distance. He attempts to curl one at pace into the top left, but Van der Sar rises and plucks it from the sky. United will be happy enough to keep Barcelona restricted to those.
40 min: Messi should release Pedro into the area down the left, but the pass is too strong. Pedro manages to keep it in, but the ensuing intricate antics go around in ever decreasing circles.
42 min: Pedro fresh-airs a sidefooter from eight yards after Xavi and Messi work a clever free kick on the edge of the United box. Barcelona still look the more likely, but there's a lack of certainty in every pass that wasn't there before Rooney's goal.
43 min: Messi twinkles straight down the middle of the pitch, drawing United's back four towards him before dinking a pass out to Villa on the right-hand edge of the box. Villa slaps in an immediate low cross, but Messi, sliding in under pressure from Carrick, can't connect from six yards.
HALF TIME: Barcelona 1-1 Manchester United. After three seconds of added time, the Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai blows for the interval. Well, that flew by. Two great finishes - the second goal controversially offside - and very little in the way of midfield faffing. More, please! Though some people are never happy: "Most interesting thing from that first half was the puff of turf as Van der Sar's clearance landed just before the referee finished the half," blasts David Wall. "I thought the FA had fixed that or is it just cosmetic for the cameras? What state is the surface going to be in come Monday for the Championship play-off final?!"
One thing I forgot to mention: Fergie tearing a few strips off Rooney as the striker grabbed a drink on the touchline. It was a full-on hairdryer, with the manager pointing out his job title in no uncertain terms. Be lovely to hear the story on this from the horse's mouth, told using the medium of steam, should United lose.
Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Wembley, Kevin McCarra's half-time verdict: "You wouldn't like to say that United have a complete answer to Barcelona, but the way in which the wide men are coming in to cover at least crowds the opposition. Park had the audacity to hassle Messi at one moment (unless I was hallucinating)."
And we're off again! United are left waiting on the pitch alone for a minute or so before Barca imperiously sashay out. Having deigned to arrive, the Spanish champions set the ball rolling again.
46 min: Mascherano goes on a ludicrously long run down the right wing, winning a corner. Barcelona don't swing it into the box, tippy-tapping it around for a while. Eventually Busquets dummies on the edge of the area, allowing Iniesta to make a hash of a low shot.
47 min: But this is a strong start to the half by Barca, with Xavi soon creating another chance to shoot for himself, the effort deflected for another corner. More passing, more passing, more passing, and eventually Vidic is fouled by Pique as the two battle for a high cross by the left-hand post.
49 min: A strong run from Rooney down the inside-left channel in response. Rooney nearly gets the better of a floundering Pique, but the defender hangs in staunchly, and eventually the ball clanks off Rooney's shins and out for a goal kick. But for a split second, it looked like the United striker might break clear on goal.
51 min: United manage to string a few passes together. They get nowhere, Hernandez letting the ball run under his foot and out of play down the left, but you've got to mention it while you can. "Wouldn't it be more fun, rather than the medium of steam, to see Fergie express almost anything via the medium of dance?" wonders Clare A. Davies. "I'd really like that. In fact I would probably pay for that." Shall we compromise on mime?
52 min: What a save by Van der Sar! Alves is sent clear into the area down the right, but his low shot is parried wonderfully by the veteran. Messi tries to guide the rebound into the unguarded net, but a United head gets in the way to deflect the clever effort out for a corner. Barca opt to fling this one into the area, and bugger it up. That really should have been Barcelona's second, but take nothing away from the save.
54 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 2-1 Manchester United. After such a great save by Van der Sar, some very poor work from the keeper. Messi is given too much time 25 yards out. He shifts the ball a yard to the left, then hammers a low shot straight down the middle. That should never go in, even though it's powerfully struck and swerving slightly - but only slightly - to the right. But not all the blame should be apportioned to the keeper: none of the United defenders moved to block Messi, with Vidic particularly static.
56 min: Valencia should be booked for a blatant body check on Messi as the Barcelona goalscorer tears at the United back line again. He isn't, though.
60 min: Dani Alves becomes the first man to go into the referee's book, for a late clip on Park.
61 min: Carrick is the second man in the book, for an absolutely ludicrous late lunge on Iniesta. It wasn't malicious, just plain useless, as he came can-canning in front of the Barca midfielder as he looked to bomb into the United half. Speaking of the Parisian arts, here's Lou Roper: "Mime, indeed, might be the perfect compromise as means of expression for Ferguson as it would enable him to convey his views (say, on match officials and the FA) without getting into trouble, while still making use of his hair-dryer and other props. The only issue I see is whether or not he can find enough of that white paint to cover up the puce colour he adopts when things aren't going his way."
63 min: Messi, standing on the edge of the United D with his back to goal, picks up a pass from Iniesta and turns Ferdinand as though the £30m defender wasn't there. Amazing. He follows up with a poor shot, though, a scuffed effort straight at Van der Sar.
65 min: Barcelona aren't far away from scoring one of the great goals. Dani Alves picks up a beautiful looped crossfield pass down the right, bursts clear into the box, but instead of shooting from a tight angle feeds Messi in the centre. Messi, eight yards out, nearly repays United for Lee Sharpe's backheel goal all those years ago, but his flick is scrambled off the line. United are hanging on.
67 min: Van der Sar palms a Xavi shot round the post for a corner. From it, Barcelona do their passing thing, and then their trying-to-walk-it-into-the-net thing, Iniesta eventually taking control with a shot from the edge of the box. Van der Sar is behind it all the way.
69 min: A change for United. Fabio departs, Nani arrives. "No, Scott, no," pleads Clare A. Davies. "Please gods of all things not the medium of mime. Imagine Alan Green doing the stuff with the white gloves, pretending to be inside a box." I'd imagine quite a lot of football fans would like to see Alan Green in a box.
70 min: GOAL!!! Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United. Messi nearly breaks clear down the right with a mazy dribble. He's crowded off the ball as he enters the area, but United can't control and it breaks to Busquets, who lays it back to Villa in space on the edge of the area. Villa takes his time, takes a touch, and curls an unstoppable peach into the top-right corner. That was a delightful, thoughtful finish.
72 min: United are doing their best to come right back at Barcelona. Rooney has a dig from distance, though his looping effort sails well over the bar. Then he has a Messi-lite skidaddle towards the Barca area, but is hounded off the ball. A decent response to a hammer blow.
74 min: Messi and Xavi nearly bring off a tasty one-two on the edge of the United box, but the latter's cushioned pass to the former isn't quite upholstered enough.
76 min: United are enjoying a bit more of the ball, so all is not lost for them. It's such a tall order, though. United make another change: Carrick is replaced by Scholes. "Just checking, but which United players were sent off?" asks Robin Hazlehurst. "And how come the ref hasn't abandoned the match? How else can they be so simultaneously outnumbered on every part of the pitch?"
78 min: The Barca fans are in fine fettle at the moment. They are belting out their showtunes. "There was a weariness to United at that goal," writes Our Man McCarra, all the way from Wembley via the delights of electronic mail. "It must be mentally and physically exhausting to keep fending off a side like Barcelona."
79 min: Giggs tries to dink the ball past Villa down the left. The ball's in the area, and hits Villa on the back of his trailing hand. Giggs screams for a
lawyer penalty but there's nothing doing. It's not been a good week so far.
81 min: Valencia is booked for his 498th minor infringement of the evening. That has been coming.
83 min: A strange lull to this game at the moment. Messi tries to pick up the speed but he's halted by a slightly-late challenge from Scholes. He's warming up, folks.
84 min: And yet a United goal now would really set Barca nerves a-janglin'. Valdes is forced, not for the first time in this match, to come to the edge of his area and punch clear with Hernandez lurking, trouble on his mind.
85 min: Nani cuts inside from the right. He works himself some space for a shot, but can only drag a poor effort wide right. Valdes makes a meal of restarting, and picks up a booking.
86 min: Keita comes on for Villa. He does like taking Villa off, does Pep Guardiola. Arsenal scored twice after the striker departed at the Emirates earlier in this campaign; it couldn't happen again, could it?
87 min: Busquets goes down and rolls around for a minute or so. It had to happen some time.
88 min: Here comes Barcelona's captain, to wild cheers from his fans. Puyol replaces Dani Alves. "Fergie doesn't even look angry any more," writes Sean D, "just disappointed."
89 min: United have enjoyed much more of the ball since going two goals down, but they're creating nothing. Barcelona seem more than happy to coast home. The board will be going up any time soon for added time. This is when United really shine.
90 min: There will be three added minutes.
90 min +1: A long ball's hoofed down the inside-right channel towards Iniesta, who twists in mid-air and attempts to lift the ball over Van der Sar from 35 yards. The keeper's badly positioned, but not that badly positioned, and back-pedals easily enough to pluck the whip-smart effort from the air.
90 min +2: Pedro, who opened the scoring, is replaced by Ibrahim Afellay. "If Mickey Owen is going to score his meaningful goal and allow SAF to recreate his 1999 triumph via mime, he'd better get on with it," suggests Lou Roper.
AND THAT'S IT!!! BARCELONA HAVE ONCE AGAIN WON THE EUROPEAN CUP AT WEMBLEY!!! Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United. Pep Guardiola leaps from the bench and races onto the pitch, but not before shaking hands warmly with Sir Alex Ferguson. Barcelona, to a man, gather in a huge circle and bounce up and down in the manic style. Wayne Rooney, who had a very good game, runs his hand over his head in agony, before shaking hands with the celebrating Barcelona players. That was a highly deserved victory, United very much second best against unquestionably Europe's top side. Ferguson stares at the turf, his hands in his pockets, kicking at sods of grass in spent frustration.
Here's Kevin McCarra, right on the whistle: "United had a plan, some early success and quite a lot of resilience, but they were still beaten efficiently. If this Barca side isn't classed just yet as one of the greatest in history (the certificate should in the post) they will surely all wind up in football Valhalla. Guardiola has a side that is careful as well as exciting."
The presentation: United trudge up the Wembley steps, Barcelona lining up a guard of honour to applaud them on their way. Ferguson leads his men up, the chance to become only the second manager to win three European Cups, after Bob Paisley, gone. For now. Ferguson hugs Fifa bigwig Michel Platini as he picks up his loser's medal, with a warm smile. There are some gaunt United faces elsewhere, though. Ryan Giggs looks particularly upset. And here - to huge cheers from their fans - come Barcelona. Guardiola leads his European Champions up the concrete hill.
The winners are awarded their medals. And then, to the strains of overblown Uefa-commissioned nonsense belting from the PA, Eric Abidal, who has gone through so much in the last few months, picks up the European Cup for Barcelona! Now there's a fairytale ending for you. So, then, the Best Club Side In The History Of All Football, Ever? It's not that ridiculous a claim. Here, I wonder what Jose Mourinho has started planning this evening?