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50th final could prove a classic

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May 17, 2006 11:35 IST

Arsenal and Barcelona have the capability of producing a classic match befitting the 50th European Cup final in the perfect setting of the Stade de France in Paris on Wednesday.

UEFA chose Paris as the venue for this year's Champions League decider in recognition of the city hosting the first final in 1956 when Barcelona's arch-rivals Real Madrid beat Stade Reims 4-3 at Parc des Princes to begin their domination of the first five competitions.

It proved to be the ideal choice, for both clubs have strong French links.

At the heart of Arsenal's success over the last decade has been their French coach Arsene Wenger, who has hand-picked compatriots with magical skills to implement his visions of glory.

Some, like the iconic Patrick Vieira are no longer with the club, but for Frenchmen Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, winning the European Cup in Paris will provide an extra piquancy to the occasion.

Barca have their French connections too. Ronaldinho made a name for himself at Paris St Germain, while the exciting Ludovic Giuly, whose outstanding goal in the semi-final against AC Milan ensured Barca a place in the final, is a French international.

Two more players who should find the occasion extra-special are Arsenal's teenage midfielder Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona's Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Fabregas began his career at Barca and developed through the youth system there before going to Arsenal. Midfielder Van Bronckhorst, who wears the name "Gio" on his back, will be facing many of his former Arsenal colleagues.


Both sides have finished their domestic league seasons strongly.

Barcelona have retained their Spanish Primera Liga crown while Arsenal shook off injuries, illnesses and a transitional mid-season blip to storm into fourth place in the English Premier League.

If they lose on Wednesday, they will have the chance to qualify for next season's Champions League by virtue of their league position and the final completes an emotional and historic 10 days for the club.

On Sunday, they played their last match after 93 years at Highbury, beating Wigan Athletic 4-2 with a hat-trick from Henry who kissed the turf after his third goal.

They are the first London club to reach the European Cup final and if they win, will walk into their new stadium in August with Europe's greatest club prize to display in their trophy room.

Whether Henry goes with them or not has been debated at length in both England and Spain. He has been widely linked with a move to Barcelona and the Spanish club's manager Frank Rijkaard did nothing to dispel the rumours this week.

Asked if Barcelona had made a bid to sign Henry, he did not confirm or deny an approach in an interview with Britain's ITV but answered: "Every club in Europe would be happy to have a player of Henry's calibre playing for them. We are no different."

But whether even Henry could score against Arsenal's defence is debatable point.

Arsenal have set a record of 10 successive matches without conceding a goal in the competition -- and Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o his lethal striking partner will have to be at their best to end that run.


Both clubs, of course, are desperate to win but Barcelona have a greater sense of history and expectation on their shoulders.

They have reached the final on four previous occasions but have won the competition only once, when they beat Sampdoria at Wembley in 1992.

Arsenal are fired with just as much ambition and desire and their fans are just as desperate for success.

But for once, Arsenal go into a final as underdogs -- which should suit them perfectly.

It is their first European Cup final, there is no history of disappointment or failure in the match bearing down on them -- and they are likely to relish such a rare feeling of liberation from their normal burden of expectation.

It could just make the difference and see them bring the European Cup back to London for the first time since Barcelona left with it 14 years ago.

Arsenal: 1-Jens Lehmann; 27-Emmanuel Eboue, 28-Kolo Toure, 23-Sol Campbell, 3-Ashley Cole; 13-Alexander Hleb, 15-Cesc Fabregas, 19-Gilberto Silva, 7-Robert Pires; 9-Jose Antonio Reyes, 14-Thierry Henry.

Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Juliano Belletti or 23-Oleguer, 5-Carles Puyol, 4-Rafael Marquez, 12-Giovanni van Bronckhorst; 15-Edmilson, 20-Deco, 24-Andres Iniesta or 17-Mark van Bommel; 10-Ronaldinho, 8-Ludovic Giuly, 9-Samuel Eto'o.


Mike Collett
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