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By Adam Szreter in Gelsenkirchen
Exactly eleven years to the day since Basile Boli's goal won the first UEFA Champions League final for Olympique de Marseille, the players of AS Monaco FC and FC Porto will step into the Arena AufSchalke hoping to add their names to Europe's most illustrious roll of honour.
Change in format
The 49th edition of the world's premier club competition was always likely to produce a surprise or two, given the change in format that meant fewer matches - but fewer opportunities to recover from a bad result. The fact that two outsiders have reached the final will please those who delight in acts of giant-killing, but perplex those who prefer to see giants on their stage.
Nevertheless few can begrudge either of these teams their appearance in Wednesday's final. With the possible exception of AC Milan, victims of one of the most outstanding comebacks in the history of European football, none of the continent's so-called bigger clubs played consistently well enough in this season's competition to feel deserving of taking their place.
So it was left to Monaco, with more goals than any other team, and Porto, unbeaten in their last ten Champions League outings, to seize the opportunity and set up a potential classic of irresistible force versus immoveable object. Will the wily skills of Fernando Morientes and the electrifying pace of Ludovic Giuly prevail over the experience of Jorge Costa and his talented young sidekick in Porto's defence, Ricardo Carvalho?
Battle of wills
Another battle of wills pits Porto's attack-minded right-back Paulo Ferreira against Monaco's mercurial left winger Jérôme Rothen – whoever spends more time in the opposing half will be a significant factor, as of course will be the way Monaco deal with the threat posed from midfield by the brilliant Brazilian-born Deco and his fellow Portuguese international Maniche.
If Porto hold a slight edge in terms of trump cards (in addition there is the exciting young forward Carlos Alberto, a probable starter in place of Benni McCarthy, plus the fit-again Derlei to spearhead the attack), Monaco may have won an important psychological battle.
While their coach Didier Deschamps knows both his lineup and his formation, his opposite number José Mourinho is forced to wait to see just where the Monaco captain Giuly is deployed before organising his troops accordingly. The smart money is on Giuly reverting to his favoured role on the right flank, with Croatian striker Dado Pršo given the chance to start on his final appearance before he joins Rangers FC.
Fourth cup for Morientes?
One of the pities of this final is that there is almost as much talk of personnel taking their leave as there is of the match itself. While players like Giuly, Morientes – the competition's top scorer who is seeking his fourth European Champion Clubs' Cup triumph – and Ricardo Carvalho seek pastures new, Champions League success has made both Mourinho and Deschamps among the most sought-after coaches in Europe.
'Most important club game in the world'
"I want my team to be a happy one," said Mourinho at the eve-of-match press conference, where he exuded confidence but no little emotion too. "We want to say we were European champions, but if not we can be happy we played in the most important club game in the world."
'It's their story to write'
Deschamps, who stands to become the youngest-ever European Cup-winning coach, said: "I can prepare the players as well as possible, but now it's up to them. Every individual reacts differently to such an occasion, but they have confidence in themselves. I'm here to help them, but it's their match, and their story to write."
AS Monaco FC: Roma; Givet, Rodriguez, Squillaci, Evra; Zikos, Bernardi, Rothen; Giuly, Prso; Morientes.
FC Porto: Vítor Baía; Paulo Ferreira, Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente; Costinha, Pedro Mendes; Maniche, Deco, Carlos Alberto; Derlei.
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