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Man United-Barcelona play Champions League catchup

TWO of the most famous names in football, Manchester United and Barcelona, have underachieved in Europe's biggest club competition with a paltry five titles between them in its 54-year history.

That total only equals the five won by Liverpool and is two behind AC Milan and four behind Real Madrid.

That's not good enough for clubs which featured players such as Bobby Charlton, George Best and David Beckham, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario and Ronaldo, and coaching greats Matt Busby and Johan Cruyff.

What makes it even more embarrassing for two powerhouse teams considered the best in the world is that they have reached only a combined eight finals before this year, United winning all three of its appearances and Barca two out of five.

Compare that with Madrid's 12 finals, Milan's 11, Liverpool's, Bayern Munich's, Benfica's and Juventus' seven and six for Dutch club Ajax.

Now that they meet in the Champions League final for the first time, they hope to put on a classic in Rome on Wednesday to make up for past failures.

"When we get a game that paints the real story of football then we are all lifted. Barcelona and Manchester United can do that," says United manager Alex Ferguson, who is chasing his 26th trophy in 23 seasons with the Red Devils.

"The players we both have suggests it will be a great final. I hope it lives up to it."

A little like a long-awaited heavyweight title fight between the defending champion and the popular No. 1 contender, Man United and Barca face each other at Olympic Stadium.

The potential lineups show each has formidable punching power while United has the better defense because Barca has been hit by suspensions.

Ferguson can choose from Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez in attack. If Thierry Henry overcomes a knee injury, he will team up with Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o in a Barcelona lineup which has scored more than 100 league goals this season.

Winner of its third English Premier League title in a row and 11th in 17 seasons, United goes to Rome chasing its fourth European club crown.

Ferguson has said repeatedly that United should have won the title more times, including during his 23-year spell at the club, which is owned by American investor Malcolm Glazer and his sons. A fourth title would put the team alongside Bayern Munich and Ajax.

"There's the opportunity for us to put ourselves among the pantheon of teams who have won the competition four times and that would be fantastic for us," he said.

There's a strong chance Man United would have won it more times if it hadn't been for the Munich air crash in 1958.

United's players were flying home from a European Cup match in Belgrade when, on a stopover in Munich, the plan crashed on takeoff in heavy snow. Eight members of the team, known as the "Busby Babes" after its injured manager, died.

At the time, United was considered strong enough to challenge defending champion Real Madrid. But the backup players could not make up for those who died and Madrid went on to win five titles in a row.

Barcelona, which is after its third European Cup title, was one of Madrid's biggest rivals in those days, winning back-to-back Spanish titles in 1959 and '60. A losing finalist to Benfica in 1961, it stayed in Madrid's shadow in the European Cup.

Throughout the years, both clubs have been synonymous with positive play, playing before huge crowds and attracting big stars. United plays to sellout crowds at its 76,000-seat Old Trafford and Barcelona gets up to 98,700 at Camp Nou.

While United's defenders will have to deal with the dribbling skills of Barca's Argentina star Messi, he fears what Ronaldo could do to his team.

"They're a great team, Manchester. If you go through the whole squad, you'd be hard pushed to know which player to choose if you had to pick just one. But clearly you have to start with Cristiano, a great forward who can gambetea with speed and east," Messi said, using a colloquial South American term for dribbling with feints and swerves.

"And he has a great medium-range shot. We're conscious that in Rome we can't give him time to think or get a shot in from distance. He's a great footballer."

Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford in October 1986 after being hugely successful in his native Scotland with Aberdeen, has led Man United to 25 titles since 1990.

At about the time that run started, a young midfielder was starting out at Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola began his career at Camp Nou that year and went on to become one of the most respected midfielders in European football, helping Barca win its first European Cup title in 1992, before it became known as the Champions League.

After a spell as reserve team coach, Guardiola took over after the club fired Frank Rijkaard and, in his first season in charge, has already taken the club to the Spanish league title.

While Ronaldo vs. Messi and Rooney vs. Henry might be two of the biggest matchups on the field, Ferguson vs. Guardiola - their first head-to-head as coaches - will be just as significant.

One of them will take a step up the ladder of European champions, while the other will have to wait another year.


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