United, Barcelona set for showdown in Rome

United and Barcelona fans, dressed as centurions, pose together outside Rome's Colosseum.
Manchester United and Barcelona are making their final preparations for Wednesday’s Champions League final in Rome in which the English and Spanish clubs will go head to head for the biggest prize in European club football.

Wednesday’s final at the 67,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico, which kicks off at 8.45 p.m. local time (1445 ET), is the most eagerly awaited match of the season, bringing together two of the continent’s best supported and most successful teams — both with reputations for attacking football. The match also features a superstar cast that includes the two players currently considered to be the world’s best; United’s Portuguese world footballer of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Barcelona’s mesmerizing Argentine forward, Lionel Messi. Who’s best Ronaldo or Messi Defending champions United are seeking to win the European Cup for the fourth time overall and for the second consecutive season after holding their nerve a year ago to beat English rivals Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. Barcelona, who last lifted the European Cup in 2006, are going for their third title. Both clubs have already won their domestic leagues while Barca also lifted the Spanish Cup. See photos of past United-Barca encounters » The Catalans beat Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Lyon in the knockout stages to reach the final while United overcame Arsenal, Porto and Inter Milan.

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Thousands of fans have flocked to Rome with at least 20,000 United supporters estimated to be in the city, arriving on 44 flights from Manchester alone, according to UEFA’s Web site. Barcelona fans filled 75 planes, UEFA said. UEFA President Michel Platini urged supporters without match tickets to stay away from the city amid concerns over security after a British man was stabbed in the early hours Wednesday. “The Rome police will have an important role to play but there will also be Spanish and English police amongst the fans, ensuring that every security aspect is taken care of,” Platini told CNN. Watch Platini on security challenge » “Problems have arisen in the past when supporters arrive without tickets and I always tell fans to please not travel if they haven’t got a ticket for the match. When ticket-less fans converge in a city, problems occur.” United manager Alex Ferguson, who has been in charge since 1986, says his players are motivated by the chance to make history by becoming the first club to win back-to-back titles since the Champions League was established in its current format in the 1990s. “It’s never been done and we’re good at doing things for the first time and it’s another opportunity for us to achieve that,” the veteran Scot told reporters. Watch Ferguson and Guardiola discuss the match » By contrast, Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola is coming to the end of his first season in charge of the club for whom he starred as a player during the 1990s, helping them lift the European Cup in 1992. “I would never have imagined this at the start of the season. I wanted to do a good job but it’s too much,” Guardiola told reporters. “To win the league and cup in my first year and now to fight to be the best team in Europe is magnificent. We’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this game and we’re in the right frame of mind. We are here to win.” United’s hopes have been boosted by club captain and key defender Rio Ferdinand’s return to fitness. Ferdinand’s partnership with Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic could be crucial to stopping a Barcelona forward line expected to include Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry as well as Messi.

But Ferguson is without Scottish midfielder Darren Fletcher who is suspended after his sending off in the semifinal second leg at Arsenal. Barcelona are missing defenders Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal due to suspension, while French forward Henry, key midfielder Andres Iniesta and Mexican defender Rafael Marquez have been fitness doubts in the build-up to the final.