Laugh all the way to bank by taking Barca on the HaFu

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


The Champions League has its dream final between a pair of iconic clubs who have come to dominate the best two domestic leagues in the world, as well as Europe's top club competition.

Including this year's final, England and Spain have provided 10 of the past 14 Champions League finalists and, whichever team win tonight, this will be the fourth victory in six years for Manchester United or Barcelona.

One factor that might make it closer than the 2009 final in Rome, where Barcelona were comfortable 2-0 winners, is that United are at home in England at Wembley. Victory has gone to seven of the 10 teams who have appeared in a European Cup final on home soil (two of the three who lost were beaten on penalties) and both Wembley finals featuring an English club have been won by the home side.

United won their first European Cup there in 1968, followed by Liverpool's triumph 10 years later, although Barcelona also have a strong connection with Wembley, having won their first European Cup there in 1992. That Barca 'Dream Team' were coached by Johan Cruyff, the patriarch of the Catalan club who also won at Wembley as a player with Ajax in 1971.

The teams won't be much changed from the 2009 final, with at least seven of the starting line-up on each side likely to be the same, and that means Barcelona must start strong favourites. Once they took an early lead in Rome, Barca left United chasing shadows and Alex Ferguson ran out of ideas about how to stop them.

In Lionel Messi, Barcelona have the world's outstanding player and it is surely just a statistical oddity that he is yet to score in England. He is the leading scorer in the Champions League this season with 11 goals, having also topped the charts in the past two seasons, and his record of opening the scoring in 15 of his 41 starts in La Liga and the Champions League this season makes him the obvious pick for first goalscorer.

Messi is likely to make the difference and Barca are the logical choice. Since their extra-time victory at Wembley in 1992, 13 of the 18 finals have been decided in 90 minutes with the other five going to penalties (notably, perhaps, three of those five shootouts involved the notoriously cautious Italians, although the latest was United v Chelsea three years ago).

Another notable factor is that the scoring has started in the first half in 13 of the past 15 finals and seven of those finals have been win-win on the half-time/full-time. The full-time result has matched the half-time standings in 14 of the past 20 finals.

That makes the Barcelona win-win worth considering for a bet at longer odds.

Two possible ways of beating Barcelona are with extreme pace or rigid organisation. Theo Walcott's speed has scared Barca - how relieved they were when he was unavailable for Arsenal in this season's second leg - and Jose Mourinho has suffocated them with Inter and Real Madrid, while also suffering some embarrassing and bitter defeats.

United are one of the few teams in Europe who are well organised (eight clean sheets in 12 games in this season's Champions League) and have the pace up front, with Javier Hernandez and Antonio Valencia, to keep the Barcelona defence worried about the ball over the top.

If Barca are forced to sit deeper as a result, Wayne Rooney will have room to operate between their defence and midfield, where he is so effective. It was no surprise that Rooney, Hernandez and Valencia were the players mentioned this week when Messi discussed where the dangers lay for Barcelona.

Set-pieces might also prove fruitful for United, but all their best elements will have to come together if they are to win.

The game-changer could be if United score the opening goal. They came close to doing that in Rome, when Cristiano Ronaldo's early free kick was fumbled by Victor Valdes, and the 2009 result might have been different if United had capitalised on their good start.

Barcelona have an 81 per cent win record when scoring first in La Liga and the Champions League this season, but United's win rate is even higher at 86 per cent. Whichever team grab the lead will have a strong chance of going on to victory, although Barca's recovery record when conceding first is excellent.

As for the goals potential, the past three finals have had under 2.5 goals, but the previous four had over 2.5. In the past two decades, the scales are tilted slightly towards under 2.5 goals (11 out of 20) but they are evenly balanced in finals with no Italian involvement, so perhaps there is some value in over 2.5 goals.


Games in England for Lionel Messi without scoring


United's win rate when scoring first this season


1 Barcelona to win in 90 minutes United will have to go some to match them

2 Lionel Messi to be first goalscorer The stats say the odds are too big

3 Over 2.5 goals in Champions League final The value bet at odds-against

4 Swansea to win Championship play-off final Beat Reading home and away in the regular season

5 Huddersfield on handicap in League One play-off final Undefeated in 23 games since start of February