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Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez should figure prominently in Wednesday's Champions league final. ((Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images))

Champions League History

The European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot.

English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Hungarian side Honved in a 1953 exhibition match, leading Wolves' manager to rather arrogantly dub his team the "champions of the world" in the next day's newspapers.

Hanot, editor of influential French sports newspaper L'Equipe, used this as the impetus to pitch his idea for a continent-wide tournament featuring the best European clubs. UEFA, European soccer's governing body, approved Hanot's idea in April 1955 and the European Cup began in 1955-56 featuring league champions across Europe.

In 1993, the European Cup was rechristened the Champions League, and in 1997-98 the tournament was expanded to include more teams, not just league champions.

Tournament Format

The 32-team field is divided into eight round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the next round.

After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.

This two-game playoff format carries over into the quarter-finals and semifinals before the last two teams standing meet in the final on May 27 in Rome.

Previous European Cup/Champions League winners

  • 2008 - Manchester United.
  • 2007 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 2006 - FC Barcelona (Spain).
  • 2005 - Liverpool (England).
  • 2004 - FC Porto (Portugal).
  • 2003 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 2002 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 2001 - Bayern Munich (Germany).
  • 2000 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1999 - Manchester United (England).
  • 1998 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1997 - Borussia Dortmund (Germany).
  • 1996 - Juventus (Italy).
  • 1995 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands).
  • 1994 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 1993 - Olympique Marseille (France).
  • 1992 - FC Barcelona (Spain).
  • 1991 - Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia).
  • 1990 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 1989 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 1988 - PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands).
  • 1987 - FC Porto (Portugal).
  • 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Romania).
  • 1985 - Juventus (Italy).
  • 1984 - Liverpool (England).
  • 1983 - Hamburger SV (Germany).
  • 1982 - Aston Villa (England).
  • 1981 - Liverpool (England).
  • 1980 - Nottingham Forest (England).
  • 1979 - Nottingham Forest (England).
  • 1978 - Liverpool (England).
  • 1977 - Liverpool (England).
  • 1976 - Bayern Munich (Germany).
  • 1975 - Bayern Munich (Germany).
  • 1974 - Bayern Munich (Germany).
  • 1973 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands).
  • 1972 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands).
  • 1971 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands).
  • 1970 - Feyenoord (Netherlands).
  • 1969 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 1968 - Manchester United (England).
  • 1967 - Celtic (Scotland).
  • 1966 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1965 - Inter Milan (Italy).
  • 1964 - Inter Milan (Italy).
  • 1963 - AC Milan (Italy).
  • 1962 - Benfica (Portugal).
  • 1961 - Benfica (Portugal).
  • 1960 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1959 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1958 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1957 - Real Madrid (Spain).
  • 1956 - Real Madrid (Spain).

 

And then there were two.

Club soccer's greatest and most prestigious competition concludes next Wednesday when Manchester United and FC Barcelona square off in the UEFA Champions League final.

The eyes of the soccer world will be watching when the reigning champions of England and Spain meet in Rome in what promises to be an exciting affair.

Manchester is vying to become the first team to repeat as Champions League winners, while Barcelona is looking to lift the trophy for the third time in its history.

Which team will emerge victorious from this titanic clash at Stadio Olimpico?

CBC Sports commentators Nigel Reed and Jason de Vos, and CBCSports.ca soccer expert John F. Molinaro offer their analyses and predictions below.

Nigel Reed: Is it just me or does anyone else just sense Barcelona's name is already on the trophy?

Maybe it's because history is against United, maybe it's to do with the Spaniards' somewhat fortunate semifinal success. I'm not sure. But now they've made it to Rome, I have a feeling they're going to make the most of it.

UEFA has its dream finale: two of the world's biggest soccer brands going head-to-head for the ultimate prize in club football. Fittingly, it will be contested by the newly crowned champions of England and Spain, and promises to be a fascinating contrast of styles. Will Barcelona be able to cope with United's lightning fast counterattacks or will the Catalans' methodical, patient buildup hold sway?

In many ways, all the signs point to a United victory. In my opinion, they pose a better array of goal-scoring options than Barcelona, who, for all the talk of Lionel Messi's brilliance, could badly miss the influence of Thierry Henry, who'll be short of match fitness following a knee ligament injury. Coach Pep Guardiola must also make do without suspended defenders Dani Alves and Eric Abidal for the most important game of the season.

Experience is crucial at this level, and once again United hold all the aces. They held their nerve to lift the cup 12 months ago in Moscow, and Sir Alex Ferguson knows exactly how to get the best out of his players on the big occasion. Guardiola is a coaching "rookie" who has rejuvenated Barcelona in his first season, but winning the tactical and mental battle in Rome is a big task.

Resilience is a vital ingredient for both teams, and perhaps this is where Barcelona has the edge. I believe United must score first and more than once to see off the challenge. Barca possesses incredible reserves of mental strength — they can never be counted out until the referee blows the final whistle, as Chelsea discovered to their cost.

For the simple reason no team has ever managed to successfully defend the UEFA Champions League title, I'm tipping Barcelona even though my head probably says United. I reckon it's going the distance and then some. Expect extra time at the Stadio Olimpico, but here's hoping it isn't, again, decided by the lottery of a penalty shootout.

PREDICTION: Barcelona wins 2-1 in extra time.

Jason de Vos: If both Barcelona and Manchester United were going into this game with full squads to choose from, it would be difficult to separate the two teams. Both possess an array of world-class talent, and given the respective domestic campaigns that they have enjoyed, both would be worthy European champions.

However, Barcelona will be without three of their first choice defenders. Both Eric Abidal and Dani Alves are suspended, and Rafael Marquez is out for the season after having knee surgery. This is where I feel the balance of power shifts in favour of Manchester United.

If you compare the respective teams, both possess attacking flair in abundance. United have scored 68 goals in 38 league games, while Barcelona have managed an incredible 104 goals in 37 league fixtures.

It is at the other end where the difference really shows.

United allowed a paltry 24 goals in 38 games, while Barcelona were beaten 34 times. You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many you let in as long as you score more than the opposition, but I don’t think getting goals against this United team will be so easy for the likes of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry. 

The only first-choice defender from Barcelona that I would choose over a United defender would be Dani Alves at right back. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the best central defensive partnership in the world, and Patrice Evra is a solid and reliable left back. Breaching the United defence is not going to be a simple task.

When you compare United’s defenders to the back four that Barcelona will be forced to field in the final, it is like comparing apples and oranges. It is there that I feel United have the advantage.

I am not a big fan of statistics, because you can find a statistic to back up any argument in football. For example, in its present format, no Champions League winner has ever repeated as champion. However, in two trips to the final, Manchester United has never lost. So which stat to you use? 

For me, Manchester United is the better team. Barcelona has some wonderful individual talent, but it is United who will come away from Rome with another trophy to add to their cabinet.

PREDICTION: Manchester United.

John F. Molinaro: Soccer fans couldn't ask for a better final.

Barcelona and Manchester are the two greatest teams in club soccer today and will be representing their respective soccer cultures with considerable style and class. This will be a sensational contest, pitting the offensive juggernaut that is Barcelona against the stellar Manchester defence.

There are so many players that could influence the outcome, but I'll be looking for big things from Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo for United, and Xavi Hernandez and Samuel Eto'o for Barcelona.

I also believe Lionel Messi is due to have a breakout performance for the Spanish after he was essentially kept in check by Chelsea during the semifinals.

Barcelona has serious issues at the back, as three of their four starting defenders — fullbacks Eric Abidal and Dani Alves (suspensions) and centre-half Rafa Marquez (injury) — will miss Wednesday's game, which means coach Pep Guardiola is forced to use a makeshift back line anchored by Carlos Puyol.

United have the psychological advantage as the defending champions, and they're just on an amazing roll. Sir Alex Ferguson's men know how to grind out results and always find a way to win, and they'll be hungry to add another Champions League title to their trophy case.

Barcelona will have their work cut out against a defence that I think is the best in club soccer, but I just think Barcelona is so awesome going forward in attack that they will able to put the Red Devils under serious pressure.

My head tells me to pick Manchester United, but my heart says Barcelona — I've picked the Catalans from the start, and I just can't bring myself to go against them.

I think this is going to be a wide-open game featuring some brilliant attacking soccer and plenty of goals.

PREDICTION: Barcelona wins 3-2.