LONDON // It is a final to define football history. For many observers Barcelona are more than the finest team of recent years, they are the greatest to ever grace a football pitch.
In this analysis, Manchester United offer no more than further opposition to be overcome; Wembley Stadium the coronation stage for a third European crown in six campaigns. There are, though, alternative readings of the sport's still unfolding chapter.
Examine these past four seasons of football and United's successes are as prevalent as Barcelona's. Each has claimed three domestic league titles, each one Club World Cup. Each prepares to play a third Champions League final, each has won one. In London tonight only one will be able to claim a genuine dominance - and they could as easily hail from Old Trafford as Camp Nou. "I think the success that both teams have had in the last decade has been enormous and it could not just be the 'Final of the Decade' it could be the best final of the decade," said Sir Alex Ferguson, the united manager.
"I think the attraction of two great teams with great history is obvious and it's an appealing final in terms of what could happen in the game. Anything could happen. There could be a lot of goals, there could be a lot of excitement, and there will be a lot of good football - I'm sure of that. It's set up, the platform is there, hopefully it turns out that way."
Bested by Barca in a 2009 final that United were expected to retain the trophy in, Ferguson is unconcerned by the general feeling that his team will lose out tonight. The Scot recognises he and his players made mistakes two summers ago, but is confident they have been learnt from.
"According to the bookmakers we are the underdogs," Ferguson said. "I don't think that really matters to us to be honest with you. I think anyone going into the game of this nature doesn't care ... what the experts say.
"Your whole preparation is about what the players can add to what we are telling them about the game, the belief factor, the tactics, all the various things like that. Everything else does not matter. It's what happens out there and we will be going out there with a genuine chance. It doesn't matter if we are favourites or not favourites."
Ferguson emphasised the advances United have made in handling European ties, the depth of Champions League experience in his ranks, and admitted that his friend Jose Mourinho had advised him on how to defeat the Real Madrid manager's grand rivals.
Though Barcelona established record runs of victories and undefeated games at one stage of the season, there was a point at which they seemed likely to be overhauled by Rea for the Spanish title.
The Spanish part of an infrequently rotated squad preceded this season with the demands of going the distance in the World Cup, and it is no coincidence that Carles Puyol is playing through knee and hamstring problems, while strikers Pedro and David Villa have been painfully short of goals of late. Barca's preparations have been upset by the volcanically enforced early arrival in London - Guardiola's preference is to spend as little time in foreign hotel rooms as possible. Much could depend on the performance of Lionel Messi, who can hope that Wembley's generous width will allow him to score on English soil for the first time in nine attempts.
Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach, did little to kill the idea that he may not honour a one-year contract extension signed earlier this season. "We are not making this conversation," Guardiola said. "This is a show, we spent an enormous amount of time and effort to get here. It's a privilege to be here, let's not talk about anything else. Leave that for another day.
"Whether you are winning or losing you have pressure. When you win you can look at the future more calmly but it all takes it toll in one way or another. It's just three or four years of going non-stop, that's just the way it is. But when you win it at least it let's you keep going. If you don't win tomorrow the future is going to be more difficult."
More Champions League, s6-7