There will be plenty of familiar faces on the Wembley pitch when Manchester United FC play FC Barcelona on Saturday but one will be conspicuous by its absence. Samuel Eto'o has almost become synonymous with UEFA Champions League finals in recent years – the Cameroonian has been on the winning side in three of the last five editions – but he will have to settle for a watching brief this time around after FC Internazionale Milano fell in the quarter-finals.
The 2009/10 winners were stunned by FC Schalke 04 in the last eight, memorably losing 5-2 in the first leg at San Siro, and Eto'o still feels some regret after bowing out uncharacteristically early. "I believe we had an opportunity to dream of playing in the final, but football isn't an exact science," the 30-year-old told UEFA.com. "We shouldn't ask God for the impossible – he's already given me a lot. But it does feel strange not being there this year. We'll try to go as far as possible again in this beautiful competition next year."
In the meantime, Eto'o is looking forward to attending the London showpiece and cheering on his former team-mates from Barcelona. "I'll be at the final in spirit because I have good friends who will be playing so my heart will be with them," said the striker, who scored 109 league goals during his five seasons in Catalonia. "I definitely hope Barcelona win. But you never know what will happen. Both Manchester United and Barcelona have improved [since the 2009 final]. I hope it will be a beautiful final."
Naturally Eto'o will be keeping an extra close eye on the attackers. Like many, he believes the presence of Lionel Messi – "undoubtedly the best player in the world" – could swing the tie in favour of the Spanish titleholders, although Eto'o is also looking forward to watching United's new kid on the block, Javier Hernández. "He's having a wonderful season," the Inter attacker enthused. "I hope he enjoys the final because it's an end-of-season gift and you never know when you'll get another opportunity."
Hernández would do well to heed Eto'o's advice. When it comes to UEFA Champions League finals few players in the modern era can claim to have seized the moment as effectively as the Cameroonian. In his first appearance in 2006, Eto'o broke the hearts of Arsenal FC fans by levelling matters late on in Paris, setting the scene for Juliano Belletti to seal a dramatic turnaround minutes later.
Prior to Eto'o's strike, Barcelona had looked vulnerable against the ten men of Arsenal. "In the first half we didn't play as well as we had been playing throughout the tournament," he recalled. "I remember reminding my team-mates at half-time that we had some of the best players in the world in our side. We had to demonstrate that to people in the second half. It was a different game after the break. We enjoyed ourselves more. In the end it was a beautiful victory because Barcelona hadn't won the competition for quite a few years."
Eto'o laid the foundations again in 2009, this time scoring early on against United in Rome and setting the tone for what was to follow. Although Messi took many of the plaudits for his exquisite header that sealed a 2-0 triumph, the importance of Eto'o's tenth-minute strike should not be understated. "It allowed us to control the game in the way we wanted," he explained. "
As long as a game stays 0-0 you're always worried about letting in a goal. But if you score first then the other team have to come out and it makes it easier for you to play better."
An emotional departure from the Camp Nou ensued for Eto'o but success was to follow him to Milan. Asked to play a more disciplined role on the right side of the Inter attack by José Mourinho, Eto'o proved an inspiration once more in 2009/10, helping the Nerazzurri win their first European Champion Clubs' Cup since 1965 thanks to a 2-0 final triumph against FC Bayern München.
"It had been so long it felt like a unique achievement," Eto'o said. "I remember when I arrived people who were 40 years old were coming up to me and saying, 'Samuel I've never seen the cup with the big ears!'. We had the fortune to win it and now the Inter fans will always carry that in their hearts forever."
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