Gary Neville offered the inside track to Manchester United v Barcelona while Graeme Souness brought concentrated man-hate to the head-to-head with ITV
In the end there was only really one winner. In the battle of the simulcast Champions League finals with ITV, Sky Sports took its usual bullish early lead with a towel-on-the-deckchair six o'clock start. This is of course the most corporate of footballing nights, so there was something agreeably homely about being eased into things by the twinkling, handsome-barbershop-window-model-from-the-1950s eminence that is Jeff Stelling.
"Three hundred cameras, 1,000 stewards, 300 print journalists," Stelling gurgled as the camera panned around Wembley, liberated finally from the shackles of his Countdown normal-guy facade and free to live openly as a fact-blurting football nerd.
Stelling was joined by the A-list axis of Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville, plus a grimacing Graeme Souness. Nominally Neville, with his special-birthday-boy United "we", was the central player here, but personally I could watch Souness talk about anything – Christmas decorations, sandcastles – for days on end, perhaps on some dedicated subscription channel, and remain riveted throughout by that sense of tight-lipped, bludgeoning man-hate.
"What will they be doing now, Gary," Stelling demanded as we awaited the players' emergence. "You know ... going to the toilet," Neville replied, ransacking a jewel from his expert-insider bank. Finally it was time to settle into the smooth sounds of Martin Tyler on commentary. Tyler shaded it on balance from Clive Tyldesley for this viewer – if only because of the lurking threat of hearing about "that wonderful night in Barcelona", a phrase that, in Tyldesley's expectant tones brings to mind a dying spinster huskily recalling the time she was felt up by Ernest Hemingway in a civil war tapas bar.
Much like United's midfield in the early minutes, Tyler and Alan Smith have yet to really settle as a pair. Jarringly for a main commentator Tyler still seems like the alpha gorilla here, his bellowed "Messi!" becoming louder and more gruff as the half progressed, swarming all over Smith's interjections like a bass player thunking away through the squawking sax break.
Barcelona are of course a gift to TV: all sweeping angles and an endlessly refilling pot of replay-gold. Camped in half a pitch for long periods, there appeared at times to be an army of Barça infesting the screen, multiplying, having triplets, hoovering up the pixels, chewing through the wiring.
"Barcelona lead. Put away by Pedro," Tyler sighed, always automatically alliterative, as the first goal went in. "ROOONEEYYY! ... He's centre stage now!" came the answering whale-call a few minutes later as we arrived at half-time giddily level.
"We couldn't get at them. We have to stop Xavi," Neville pointed out at half-time. As far as I can tell Neville works for Sky now and is retired from football. Partiality is often nice and quite humanising, but probably this kind of thing should be put away for a major half-time punditry spot. Thank the punditry gods for Graeme. "Barcelona? They had 63% possession," Souness spat, thrillingly furious about a statistic, an entire world of human failing revealed in a possession shortfall.
And before long it was back to the Barça-swarm, the screen seeming to be on a slant, everybody inside it listing inexorably down towards the United goal. "After very little the little man gets a lot!" Tyler declared, nailing it – weirdly, but still nailing it – as that crucial second goal went in. "He can do anything!" Smith roared at last alongside him, finding his co-commentator boom. And so we settled in for gliding Catalan keep-ball, Tyler and Smith by now sounding replete, almost a little hypnotised, by yet another one-way episode of Barça on the box.
Speaking of ITV: last week the channel complained about a phrase I used in an Observer review of its FA Cup final coverage. It was justified: I described a pre-match Mario Balotelli segment as "choppy, awkward [and] Italian-racism-avoiding". One part of this was incorrect, not to mention unfair on ITV and Ned Boulting, who made the film. It was simply a failed attempt on my part to convey that it had felt jarring cutting straight back to the feelgood tone of the show after such serious ground. That is by the by, though: Boulting's film raised the issue and ITV should be applauded for that.