Bayer 04 Leverkusen have been all but written off ahead of tonight's UEFA Champions League final against Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid CF but those who doubt the German team's chances overlook Michael Ballack.
Should the German international win the battle in midfield with Zidane - no easy task - Leverkusen could spring a surprise.
Zidane's credentials are well known. A FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship winner, he has been the inspiration behind France's rise to dominance over the last four years. His creativity and eye for a through ball can open up a defence or alternatively he has the trickery to cut through a back four alone.
Used to the big stage
One look at Zidane's medal collection tells you that he is used to playing on the biggest stage. He has appeared in - and lost - two Champions League finals [for Juventus FC, against BV Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Madrid in 1998], won a Serie A title with Juventus in 1998 and, of course, featured in France 98 and Euro 2000™.
Rise to prominence
Ballack, however, has risen to world prominence only this season with some scintillating displays for his club in the 1. Bundesliga, Champions League and German Cup. The 25-year-old was Leverkusen's top scorer in the league and has been the catalyst for their outstanding European form, with six goals in the Champions League.
Small club, big achievement
Leverkusen lost the domestic title that had looked to be theirs to Dortmund after two late sloppy performances, and last weekend went down 4-2 in the German Cup final to FC Schalke 04. However, for a comparatively small club, it has been a brilliant year for Klaus Toppmöller's side and in part that is down to Ballack.
Unlike Zidane who does damage with defenders in front of him, Ballack tends to be at his most dangerous making runs into the penalty area. This was typified by his excellent goal against Manchester United FC in the semi-final first leg at Old Trafford, when he timed a forward foray to perfection to slam home a cut-back from the by-line, and also by his second goal against Liverpool FC in the quarter-final game in Leverkusen, with another well-timed run and header.
He also possesses a wicked shot from distance and Zidane will have to be quick to close him down around the edge of the penalty area tonight. Again, Liverpool will remember a fine example of this particular art when he drilled home a cracking shot in the quarter-final second leg to bring Leverkusen back into the tie.
Grace v graft
While Zidane, in keeping with the French stereotype, brings grace and flair to the Madrid midfield, Ballack, in keeping with the German stereotype, purveys graft and industry. Whoever best manages to display their qualities tonight could decide the destination of the most coveted trophy in club football.
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