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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Champions League final should be a belter

LONDON (AP) Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta and Rio Ferdinand are all striving to get fit for a Champions League final no one wants to miss.

News photo
Hang on a minute: Sheffield United's Nick Montgomery (right) holds Burnley's Jay Rodriguez in their League Championship playoff at Wembley Stadium on Monday. Burnley won 1-0. AP PHOTO

Barcelona against defending champion Manchester United in Rome's Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday is a confrontation soccer fans have been waiting for all season, with both teams sending out strikers the caliber of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and, hopefully, Henry.

The Frenchman, who played against Barca on the losing Arsenal team in the 2006 final, has been nursing a knee injury since the Spanish team beat Bayern Munich 4-0 in the quarterfinal. Attacking midfielder Iniesta has a thigh muscle injury which has also ruled him out of recent games.

"If it were down to willpower they would be there, but it's their muscular fibers which will decide," said coach Pep Guardiola, who has guided his team to the Spanish League and Cup titles and the Champions League final in his first season in charge. "I have faith but, until Monday or Tuesday, we won't know."

Henry and Iniesta practiced Monday, and the team said they would likely be available to play.

The Barcelona front three are part of a lineup which has scored more than 150 league and cup goals this season and face a Man United strike force which has been carefully reshuffled throughout the season by veteran manager Alex Ferguson.

Only rarely does Ferguson put all four on the field at the same time and there is strong speculation that two of them — probably Berbatov and Tevez — will be on the bench in Rome.

The Scot, who is chasing his 26th overall trophy in 23 years at Old Trafford, has one injured player in Ferdinand.

The center-back recently returned from a groin injury when he picked up a calf muscle problem which won't go away and Ferguson has put young Northern Ireland international Jonny Evans on standby to team with Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the defense to try and handle Eto'o and his teammates.

"He trained on Saturday and today with the other players," Ferguson said Sunday. "I think he's on course to play on Wednesday."

If Ferdinand is fit, then United will have a far stronger defense than Barcelona, which has Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal suspended and Rafael Marquez out with an injury. It also has the more reliable goalkeeper in Dutch star Edwin van der Sar, who first won the title with Ajax in 1995 and made crucial penalty saves in last season's final shootout against Chelsea.

French left-back Patrice Evra believes he can stifle Messi the same way he did when Man United knocked Barcelona out in last season's semifinal.

"I was confident before the games because I train every day against players like Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney," he said. "You have a lot of quality there."

The midfield battle is where Barcelona could have the key, as long as Iniesta is fit.

With Xavi Hernandez pulling the strings and Iniesta running at defenders and pulling them out of position, Barca has been able to unlock opposing defenses and create room for the front three.

Ferguson has to decide whether his two veteran midfielders, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, should start and is more likely to field Michael Carrick and Anderson possibly with Korean star Park Ji Sung on the wing.

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