With the 2010 FIFA World Cup only a little over a month away, it seems like soccer is making its return into the consciousness of the American sports mind. But as large of a spectacle as the World Cup is, what the rest of the world calls “football” isn’t just something played every four years. In only two weeks, the most prestigious European soccer tournament will conclude with its final in Madrid. Last August, the UEFA Champions League began with the top teams from the top professional teams in Europe, and after many rounds of competition, only two teams remain standing in the knockout tournament: Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. They’ll face off Saturday, May 22nd in Madrid with the title of Champions of Europe on the line.
Bayern Munich, perennial title contenders of the German league Bundesliga, have enjoyed quite a decade of success in the Champions League, winning the competition in 2000 and making four other quarterfinal appearances in the last ten years. Still, they have not been a serious challenger for the title since 2005, with one quarterfinal loss being last year’s 12-1 aggregate defeat to FC Barcelona. This year, however, has been different for the German powerhouse. They’ve had close victories in beating a strong Fiorentina team and the English champions, Manchester United, before cruising over a stumbling Lyon team in the semifinals. French youngster Frank Ribery was supposed to supply the star power, but he’s actually been overshadowed by the sparkling play of Dutch winger Arjen Robben, who blasted a long ranged game-winner in the round of 16 against Fiorentina, and then netted with a perfect volley to win the quarterfinal against Man U.
Bayern’s opponents in the final will be Inter Milan, or Internazionale, who have won the Italian Serie A league title every year since 2005. However, they haven’t been able to replicate their league performance in Europe’s premier tournament; they last made it to the tournament’s quarterfinal round in 2006. Like their opponents, they were able to break the trend, and beat many very good clubs on their way to the finals, including the tournament favorite, FC Barcelona. Playing in the same city as AC Milan, they haven’t had their neighbors’ successes in Europe over the years, but are looking to earn their first European Championship since 1965.
The key match-ups in the final will be:
1. Frank Ribery’s suspension. The French winger has been a star for the German giants this season, and when he’s on his game, he and Robben will wreck havoc on any defense. However, Ribery’s red card for a nasty tackle in the first leg of the semifinal has him suspended from the final, and Bayern are trying to get the suspension revoked. Will the tournament officials allow him to come back for the finals? If he comes back, that would be a huge boost for the offensive firepower of Bayern Munich.
2. Munich’s attacking midfield vs. Inter’s defensive midfield. Bayern has very serviceable strikers in Olic, Mueller, and Klose, but much more of their game depends on their midfielders winning possession and pushing the ball forward. If Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel are solid in the middle and Robben and Ribery or Altintop get the ball and make attacking runs, Bayern will be very tough to beat. Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel were great winning and controlling the ball in their last game against Lyon, which opened up chances for their attacking midfielders to do their thing. But in the final, they’ll be going against one of the nastiest defensive midfields in the entire world. Cambiasso, Zanetti, Chivu, and Sneijder were able to keep Barcelona’s attackers at bay for some length in two games, and those were the best in the world. Should they succeed in disrupting Munich’s passing rhythm and limit their involvement in the attack, that will leave less pressure for their defense and give both their fullbacks and midfielders more opportunities to join in the attack.
3. Unexpected Contributions. For Inter, it was the veteran Christian Chivu stepping up. Finding out less than an hour before kickoff that he had to be inserted into the lineup, he defended bravely against Barcelona, and helped hold off their incessant attack. For Bayern, it was the young fullback Contento who stepped up in both games against Lyon. Only nineteen years old, he held his own against the Lyon attackers, and had quality passes up into the attack. Will Chivu be ready to be called upon once again in the final if need be? Can Contento, who had barely featured in Munich’s Champions League campaign before the semifinals, overcome the pressure of his first Champions League final? One of these questions may determines the game on May 22nd.
Both teams have proven themselves on the way to the finals, and there’s little doubt they deserve to be in such a position. It will be the attacking prowess of the German side against the solid Italian defense in the end. Munich has not faced an opponent this year with as disruptive a defense as Inter, and Eto’o and Milito will be able to get forward for the Italian side on the counter. Though the stunning nature of Munich’s wins against Man U and Fiorentina have them believing this is a magical year, the Italians are too tough on defense, and will not allow the Munich attack to get into a rhythm. Prediction: 2-1 Inter Milan.