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Fiftieth final could prove to be a classic

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, May 12 (Reuters) Arsenal and Barcelona have the capability of producing a classic match befitting the 50th European Cup final in the perfect setting of the Stade de France on Wednesday.

UEFA chose Paris as the venue for this year's Champions League decider in recognition of the city hosting the first final in 1956 when Barcelona's arch-rivals Real Madrid beat Stade Reims 4-3 at Parc des Princes to begin their domination of the first five competitions.

It proved to be the ideal choice, for both clubs have strong French links.

At the heart of Arsenal's success over the last decade has been their French coach Arsene Wenger, who has hand-picked compatriots with magical skills to implement his visions of glory.

Some, like the iconic Patrick Vieira are no longer with the club, but for Frenchmen Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, winning the European Cup in Paris will provide an extra piquancy to the occasion.

Barca have their French connections too. Ronaldinho made a name for himself at Paris St Germain, while the exciting Ludovic Giuly, whose outstanding goal in the semi-final against AC Milan ensured Barca a place in the final, is a French international.

Two more players who should find the occasion extra-special are Arsenal's teenage midfielder Cesc Fabregas and Barcelona's Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Fabregas began his career at Barca and developed through the youth system there before going to Arsenal. Midfielder Van Bronckhorst, who wears the name ''Gio'' on his back, will be facing many of his former Arsenal colleagues.

GOOD FORM Both sides have finished their domestic league seasons strongly.

Barcelona have retained their La Liga crown while Arsenal shook off injuries, illnesses and a transitional mid-season blip to storm into fourth place in the Premier League.

If they lose on Wednesday, they will have the chance to qualify for next season's Champions League by virtue of their league position and the final completes an emotional and historic 10 days for the club.

On Sunday, they played their last match after 93 years at Highbury, beating Wigan Athletic 4-2 with a hat-trick from Henry who kissed the turf after his third goal.

They are the first London club to reach the European Cup final and if they win, will walk into their new stadium in August with Europe's greatest club prize to display in their trophy room.

MORE REUTERS AY BD1452

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