x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Spain seduced by Guardiola's style

Wildly conflicting emotions were on display in Old Trafford's modern steel and glass ticket office in the last few days.

Wildly conflicting emotions were on display in Old Trafford's modern steel and glass ticket office in the last few days. Most of the fans who queued patiently, left gleefully clutching their prized credit card-style tickets for the 2009 Champions League final tonight in Rome. As they ignored the ticket touts outside offering £500 (Dh1,835) for their tickets (face value £65 - £176), others cursed and pleaded with the hapless United employees behind their glass screen, to no avail.

"I've supported United for over 40 years!" bellowed one desperate fan. "It doesn't matter that I haven't been to a game this season, I'm going to Rome and I deserve a ticket." One group took more desperate and criminal action, but their plans to rob the office were foiled. The clamour for tickets was no quieter in Barcelona, where the Catalans laughed off a Mancunian rumour that they had not managed to sell their 19,000 allocation. Only United in world football have a higher average crowd than Barca's 72,000 this season and both clubs could have sold their Rome allocations several times over.

I spent time in Manchester and Barcelona last week, listening to conversations over acquiring tickets and elaborate travel plans for tonight's final. At least the Catalans have another option - over 2,500 Barca cules will cross the Mediterranean by ship. In Manchester, the talk was of United becoming the first club since Milan to retain the European Cup. In Barcelona, there is a febrile anticipation on many levels.

Coach Pep Guardiola, 38, has been idolised since his successful days dominating Barca's midfield. The Catalan was integral to the club's first European Cup success under his master Johann Cruyff in 1992 and his Cruyff-inspired philosophy has never wavered. Results this season have been spectacular, principally the recent 6-2 humiliation of Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. That pushed Barca towards a record league points haul and their attacking triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o haven't stopped scoring. Free from the injuries which have blighted past seasons, Messi can lay serious claim to being the world's best player.

Barca defender Gerard Pique, who has played with both Messi and United's star Cristiano Ronaldo, thinks that the Argentinian can have a greater influence on the game. "He can be more determining because he alone can create a chance and win a game," Pique explained. "What Lionel can do is pass three or four players and that is unique." Guardiola is tactically astute and has earned the respect of all. That he's lauded in Spain's sport papers is no surprise. They have long surrendered to hyperbole and even the prediction from racing driver Fernando Alonso that "Barca will beat Manchester 5-1" was enough for a shrill headline, although the serious press have also got it bad for Guardiola. "He's the eternal seducer," wrote El Pais, "The triumph of passion," according to El Mundo.

Guardiola considers the game against United "the dream final". He intends to remain true to Barca's attacking philosophy, but he knows United's will be Barca's greatest challenge. Messi, the man in which Barca invest most of their hopes, is sincere when he claims: "This is the game of my life, the most important in my career so far. "We're very motivated," adds the diminutive Argentinian, unnecessarily. "We know it's difficult to play against the English sides in big matches, but we're expecting an open game and we're not changing the way we play."