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This week in soccer

Corner Kicks

Five things happening around the world:

May 21, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

1 The European soccer season reaches its climactic finale today when Manchester United and Chelsea square off in the first all-English European Champions League final.

More than 40,000 British fans have made the trek to Russia to see the game (11:30 a.m., ESPN2) at the venerable Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, where capacity has been reduced to a manageable 69,500.

The worldwide television audience is expected to reach into the hundreds of millions, with a record 20.6 million predicted in England alone.

Considering the array of international talent available to both coaches, the choice of who to start is a major problem. Both teams are at full strength.

"I know my team, I think, but I haven't enjoyed picking it," Manchester United Coach Alex Ferguson said. "Some very good players will miss out, and it's not easy to tell them that."

Said Chelsea Coach Avram Grant: "I know 80% of my team. But I like to keep watching them in training to see how they are doing."

Today's game will be the 151st time the teams have played each other. English Premier League champion Manchester United has won 65 of the games, Chelsea, this season's EPL runner-up, has won 41, and 44 have ended in a tie.

2 If the winner can be predicted based upon which team had the more difficult route to the 53rd final, today's game is a tough call.

Manchester United, winner of the European Cup in 1968 and 1999, had to overcome Sporting Lisbon, AS Roma and Dynamo Kiev in the first round, then got past Olympique Lyon in the round of 16, AS Roma (again) in the quarterfinals and Barcelona in the semifinals.

Chelsea, which will be playing in its first Champions League final, made its way past Rosenborg, Valencia and Schalke 04 in the initial round, then overcame Olympiakos in the round of 16, Fenerbahce in the quarterfinals and five-time champion Liverpool in the semifinals.

3 Steve Nicol, who won the European Cup with Liverpool in 1984 and now coaches the New England Revolution, said he believes Manchester United will prevail.

"I think Man United's the better team all round," Nicol told The Times. "They play the game the way it should be played. They try to attack teams and they pass the ball. They fight. They can defend. They've got quality. They've got everything.

"You name it, they can do it."

4 Moscow might be the site for today's final, but the grass and the referee are from Slovakia.

Lubos Michel, who turned 40 last Friday, was selected to officiate the match, not only because he is regarded as one of the world's best, but because he has experience in handling potentially explosive games.

It was Michel who refereed Germany's quarterfinal victory over Argentina on penalty kicks in Berlin at the 2006 World Cup and had to deal with the postgame brawl between players.

He also handled Liverpool's 1-0 semifinal victory over Chelsea in the 2005 Champions League, where then-Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho claimed the lone goal by Luis Garcia came "from the moon." Replays later showed Michel had been correct in awarding it.

5 As for the grass, Luzhniki Stadium -- which opened in 1956 and was known as the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium when it was the main venue for the 1980 Olympic Games -- normally has an artificial surface.

A real grass field was installed in October specifically for today's game, but it was considered too bumpy. A new pitch was purchased in Slovakia and laid down two weeks ago but has not bedded in well.

Former Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon has called it "very dangerous for the players if it stays the way it is," but a spokesman for UEFA said: "It may not look very, very green on television, but, essentially, it is a good pitch to play football on."

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