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It may not be the final anyone expected before the knockout phase began, but the curtain looks set to be brought down on the tenth anniversary celebrations of the UEFA Champions League with a classic footballing confrontation at a legendary venue.
The greatest final of all
Glasgow's Hampden Park is the setting for Real Madrid CF, eight-times winners and a bastion of world club football, against Bayer 04 Leverkusen, making their first appearance in the final of Europe's premier club competition. It evokes memories of perhaps the greatest of all European Cup finals, the 1960 edition, when the Spaniards won 7-3 against German opposition in the shape of Eintracht Frankfurt in front of 134,000 spectators at Hampden.
Outsiders coming in
It seems only one team can win: how can little Leverkusen hope to compete with the likes of Raúl González, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos, not to mention Iván Helguera, Fernando Hierro and Fernando Morientes? But the most confident of predictions can be made to look foolish in a cup final, and no one will bet against Klaus Toppmöller's outsiders without some misgivings. You only have to look at their last three games in the competition.
Leverkusen's new wave
After losing a tight quarter-final first leg against Liverpool FC at Anfield, Leverkusen swept past the four-times European champions in the return at the BayArena, thrusting their exciting brand of attacking football into the consciousness of football fans across the continent.
Toppmöller leads the cheers
If Manchester United FC were still not daunted by the prospect of playing them in the semi-finals, they certainly were after being outplayed in the drawn first leg at Old Trafford. Leverkusen's second equaliser was scored by the Swiss-born German international Oliver Neuville, and it was his stunning equaliser in the home leg that sealed Leverkusen's passage to the final and prompted joyous celebrations, led by the irrepressible Toppmöller.
Right formula in chemical town
The former German international was brought in as coach by club president Reiner Calmund after a succession of bigger names (Christophe Daum, Rudi Völler, Berti Vogts) had, for one reason or another, failed to find the right formula for a small-town club that thrives on home-grown talent. And although they have won nothing yet, losing in the German Cup final and being pipped for the German league, whatever the outcome against Madrid, Toppmüller's Leverkusen have made their mark.
Madrid second best
Madrid, unusually, find themselves in an identical situation: Spanish Cup runners-up and edged out in the Spanish league, they face the possibility of finishing their centenary season with nothing to show for their efforts despite being the outstanding side in both Champions League group phases, as well as beating FC Bayern München and FC Barcelona in the knockout phase.
Zidane's third time lucky?
Two years on from their last Champions League victory, they are even more strongly fancied to win having added Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane to their squad since then. For Zidane especially - the only FIFA World Cup winner on either side - there will be an extra incentive after losing his two previous finals, both in the colours of Juventus FC, one against Madrid.
Ballack on song
It will be surprising if Zidane is not the pivotal figure for Madrid, but his opposing playmaker, Michael Ballack, has hit top form at just the right time and has his own reasons for wanting to win as this will be his last match for Leverkusen before joining Bayern.
Ballack will miss the attacking threat of Zé Roberto, unluckily suspended after picking up a yellow card in the last game, as well as his captain, Jens Nowotny, injured in the same match; Boris Zivkovic is expected to carry on in place of Nowotny in central defence, while Thomas Brdaric might benefit from Zé Roberto's absence.
Makelele is a doubt
Madrid should be at full strength. Vicente del Bosque is expected to have Claude Makelele fit again after he missed last Friday's league game against RC Deportivo La Coruña through injury. If the Frenchman, who trained yesterday, fails to recover, however, Helguera seems likely to play in front of the back four rather then in it, with Francisco Pavón joining his captain, Hierro, in central defence. The only other question is which from Guti and Morientes will take their place alongside Raúl in attack, with the former favourite to get the nod.
A game too far?
It may be hard to bet against a star-studded team like Madrid, but for once it will not just be the footballing romantics who fancy the chances of the underdog. Leverkusen have won supporters and admirers ever since the qualifying round for this season's Champions League; but will their unlikely story have a happy ending - or will it prove one game too far for Toppmöller's men?
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