Wembley dreams start at the San Siro

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Cules around the world wake up every morning dreaming of the wonderful sight of eternal captain Carles Puyol lifting the club's 5th Champions League trophy in front of an adoring Blaugrana crowd. Sure, winning La Liga and Copa del Rey is also special, but the added prestige that the big-eared European Cup brings can't be compared to succeeding in any other competition.

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The fact that this year's final is being played in the legendary Wembley Stadium once again is definitely an added incentive, given the success the Catalans have enjoyed there in the previous editions. The home of English football has proven to be extremely generous to Barcelona in the past, with the Blaugrana having been crowned European Champions there back in 1992 and 2011.

Many experts predict that this will certainly be third time lucky in the English capital for the Blaugrana and that the road ahead won't be too problematic for the Catalans. Personally though, I feel that thinking so far ahead when the last-16 haven't even kicked off yet is a considerable lack of respect to the rivals the team may face along the way, starting with the heavy-weight clash against AC Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday.

Barcelona midfield supremo Xavi Hernandez explained: "We know we are favourites; we accept and like that role, but we need to prove it while competing on the pitch. High expectations can add pressure but we like the challenge. AC Milan may not be having their best ever Serie A season, but their team is strong defensively, true warriors, beasts. Players such as El Shaarawy, Bojan Krkic or Kevin-Prince Boateng are very talented. The Rossoneri are a great club, having won the European Cup seven times. We must watch out." Wise words from a player who has experienced a fair share of highs and lows over the years.

Barcelona vs Milan has somehow become a regular feature in the Champions League in the last decade, with both teams facing each other up to seven times in the last nine years. The fact that the Blaugrana haven't lost to the Italians since October 2004, while reassuring, will certainly count for nothing once the referee signals kick-off in front of an 80,000 sold-out crowd.

Another point which may have gone unnoticed by those who have recently become Barcelona followers, or are perhaps too young to remember, is the constant transfer of players between both clubs. Since 1997, up to 16 professionals have swapped the Blaugrana for the Rossoneri or vice versa on a regular basis: Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo, Edgar Davids, Ronaldinho, Zlatan Ibrahimovic... A clear example of the great relationship the two clubs have been capable of maintaining at institutional level.

From a purely sporting perspective, Barcelona face this match at one of the strongest points of the season, with the club immersed in a peaceful period brought by remarkably positive results so far. They have reached the Champions League last-16 after winning Group G, lead the table with 65 out of a possible 72 points in La Liga and are currently fighting Real Madrid for a place in the Copa del Rey final.

Jordi Roura (with the constant help of recovering Tito Vilanova via Facetime from New York) will be able to select a sufficiently strong starting XI for the match, thanks to the fact that injuries have been reasonably kind to the Catalans in recent times if we compare the current situation to that of previous seasons.

Cules will be right to expect the one and only Lionel Messi to leave his soul on the pitch while trying to expend his 301 Blaugrana goals tally but, as I have insisted many times before, fans can also trust the rest of this golden generation to make an impact and unbalance the game at any given time.

If the Barcelona attackers can ensure the ball flows quickly across the midfield and the Italian back-line is stretched by diagonal runs from the wings and constant player rotation in their own defensive third, there is a good chance that the Catalans may grab a positive result from the San Siro.

Considering the fact that Xavi will be a doubt until the very last minute with a minor hamstring injury, I would personally field the following starting lineup: Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas; Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Pedro Rodriguez.

Crunch time at the most prestigious competition in world football is about to start - it's time to make dreams come true!

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