The Spanish capital is ready and awaiting this season’s UEFA Champions League climax at the Santiago Bernabéu (home of nine-time winners Real Madrid) between the champions of Germany, Bayern Munich, and the Champions of Italy, Internazionale (Inter Milan).
While the spectacle of hosting a European Cup final would instil a unique buzz in any city, there will surely be an element of disappointment at the local club’s failure to be contesting the final this year in front of their own crowd, after their round of 16 elimination at the hands of French side Lyon.
While many may argue that Spanish giants FC Barcelona deserved to make the final with their sheer skill and classy football, the teams from Bavaria and Lombardia have been no less than the best both domestically and in Europe this season, and more than worthy contenders for the Cup.
Bayern – champions of the Bundesliga – had been written off by many during the competition’s group stage (back in November), yet manager Louis van Gaal rallied his side as they began to play consistent football, travelling to Turin to beat Juventus 4-1 to progress to the knockout stage. Munich then defeated Fiorentina 4-4 (on the away goals rule), and were drawn against English powerhouse Manchester United in the quarter-finals. Again, few seemed to believe Bayern capable of beating the three-time European Champions – yet after an injury to talismanic forward Wayne Rooney (of Manchester United) and thanks to two late goals, Bayern headed to England for the second leg with a 2-1 advantage. United raced away to a 3-0 lead, but a goal from Ivica Olić and a thunderous drive from Arjen Robben put Bayern through to the last four, via away goals yet again. Bayern met considerably less resistance in the semis, breezing past Lyon – yet not without cost – star winger Frank Ribéry sent off in the first leg for a stamp on the ankle of Lyon’s Lisandro – UEFA’s three-match ban ruling him out of the final.
The Nerazzurri (Inter Milan), under the stewardship of ‘the Special One’ – José Mourinho – finished second in their group which also contained the Champions League holders FC Barcelona, Russian Champions Rubin Kazan and the Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev – who this season saw the return of hero Andriy Shevchenko. After hosting a 0-0 draw at the San Siro to Barcelona, Inter battled freezing cold and snow away in Kazan, being held to a 1-1 draw. The Italians drew Dynamo at home before defeating them in Kiev, and after a losing trip to the Camp Nou in Barcelona, won 2-0 at home over Rubin Kazan to progress as runners up of Group F. The knockout round provided the manager a return to his previous employers Chelsea, as Inter took a 2-1 lead to London, where a single goal from Samuel Eto’o took the Milanese into the quarter finals. Russian opposition was met again for Internazionale in the last eight, as they overpowered CSKA Moscow 2-0 on aggregate. A sense of déjà vu was present as Inter was paired with FC Barcelona in the semis, and after a 3-1 victory at home, held on to lose 1-0 in a spiteful encounter in Spain, which Mourinho dubbed ‘the sweetest loss of my career’ as the Nerazzuri booked their ticket to Madrid. Not even the Camp Nou sprinklers, turned onto the Inter players after the match, could dampen their jubilation, as the club now looks for its first European success since 1965.
Both Bayern and Internazionale truly represent champions of Europe, and are both seeking to complete ‘the treble’ – the domestic championship, domestic cup and European Cup. Bayern last week destroyed Werder Bremen 4-0 to win the Deutscher Pokal; while Inter defeated AS Roma 1-0 in the Coppa Italia, and are both one win away from completing this rare feat.
Bayern will most likely stick to a similar line-up to that deployed in the semi-final victory over Lyon and Cup-final win over Bremen. Hans-Jörg Butt – recently selected for the German national team for the summer’s FIFA World Cup – will start in goal, behind arguably Europe’s best centre-back pairing of Daniel Van Buyten and Martín Demichelis. Philipp Lahm will look to bombard down the right flank in partnership with the fleet-footed Arjen Robben, aiming to provide strikers Thomas Müller and Ivica Olić with service from out wide. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark Van Bommel will be needed to strip Inter on possession in the centre of the field, and keep in-form midfielder Wesley Sneijder quiet. Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez can provide goals if they come off the bench.
Inter Milan are likely to start with Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César, with compatriots Lúcio and Maicon leading the back four. Captain Javier Zanetti may be tasked with holding the midfield alongside Esteban Cambiasso and Wesley Sneijder, while Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito will look to score the goals.
This is the 55th European Club Championship final and the first to be staged on a Saturday night, and when the two sides meet in Madrid early this Sunday morning (AEST), we should be provided with a true celebration of the cream of European club football. Hopefully the game lives up to its possibilities: a true contest between champions.
SBS TV will screen the game at 4AM on Sunday.