Messi, Pirlo, Xavi, Pogba – stars of the Champions League final
Two veterans, a living legend and a young star will be centre of attention in Berlin on Saturday night
The European football season reaches its climax on Saturday, as Barcelona face Juventus in the Champions League final. Some of the biggest names in world football will be taking part, but two will be bidding farewell to Europe after glittering careers.
For another player there is the chance to cement his reputation as the greatest ever, while one young prospect has the chance to announce himself as superstar.
Here's who the cameras will be following in Berlin:
There is very little left to be written about the Argentine genius, who is aiming for a fourth Champions League win at the age of just 27. On a personal level Messi will be desperate to score against Juventus, says the Daily Telegraph. "One goal will be enough to edge the Barcelona forward ahead of arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the all-time Champions League top-scorers chart, and make him the first player to score in three separate finals."
The debate about whether he is the greatest ever player rumbles on but whatever your opinion, it is unlikely he will have an anonymous game on Saturday. As Laurie Whitwell of the Daily Mail says: "The number of goals he has to his name at the age of 27 is quite ludicrous – he leads Barcelona's all-time list – but his unfailing ability to make an impact on grand occasions is even more staggering."
The 36-year-old Italian maestro is expected to leave Juventus this summer, and will head for the Gulf or the US. But his European swansong could be memorable.
Pirlo arrived in Turin from AC Milan in 2011 in what Mark Ogden of the Daily Telegraph calls "arguably the greatest free transfer of all time". During his stay he has won four consecutive Serie A titles and the Coppa Italia. On Saturday he will be hoping for a third Champions League winners medal, having made three appearances in the final with Milan. He won twice, in 2003 and 2007, but was also part of the team that lost to Liverpool in 2005.
Pirlo's late period rennaissance has "redefined" the idea of the deep-lying playmaker says Daniel Storey of Football365. "In a sport ever obsessed with the fastest, strongest and biggest, he relies on touch, close control, calmness and vision. Pirlo is neither the perfect shield for a defence nor marauding, powerful central midfielder, but the master puppeteer."
The bearded Italian with a penchant for poetry "stands as a symbol of football finesse over football figures... the antithesis of a game increasingly driven by data and numbers", says Storey. He is the "aesthete's athlete".
The other midfield legend bidding farewell on Saturday is Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez, who is leaving the Camp Nou after 17 years to play in Qatar. The 35-year-old was reduced to tears on live TV as Barcelona feted him this week, but there will be another round of tributes after the game on Saturday.
Writing for Goal.com former team-mate Gaizka Mendieta, who spent one season alongside him at Barcelona, describes Xavi's career as "immaculate". And it is. He has already won 24 trophies with Barca plus a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain. Victory on Saturday would add a fourth Champions League winners medal to his collection.
His importance to Barcelona cannot be under-estimated, says Mendieta. "Xavi has been the key man, the leader of the best team in the world, playing the best football in history. La Liga and Spanish football was projected to a new level during his career, and he was a large part of it. Is there anyone else is like him, who can control a game as he has done so many times?"
He will not start for Barcelona, but should appear off the bench to take a final bow.
As Pirlo and Xavi bow out, could Juventus starlet Pogba choose the same stage to announce himself as their successor? The 22-year-old French midfielder has been touted as the next big thing for several seasons but it remains to be seen where he eventually ends up on the "excellence spectrum", says Amy Lawrence in The Guardian.
Saturday's final will give him the chance to show he has the ability to become the "dominant midfielder of his age".
"Pogba can grab your attention and make you gasp with his power and panache," says Lawrence, but he rarely controls a game from start to finish, often because he does not have to. "It is a fine line in the brilliance stakes and that is where the challenge lies if he is to reach the kind of status Pirlo and Xavi have enjoyed. He needs to show he can consistently grab a game from the start and keep it in his grip until the end."
A dominant performance in midfield would be a good start.