Uefa Super Cup final: Five talking points ahead of Belfast's big showpiece occasion
The National Stadium at Windsor Park will host the biggest club fixture ever to be held in Northern Ireland when Chelsea faces Villarreal in the Uefa Super Cup on Wednesday night.
Northern Ireland has had the privilege of hosting some major global events, sporting and otherwise, over recent years.
The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in 2019 and the MTV Awards in Belfast in 2011 spring to mind, but on Wednesday night the eyes of the footballing world will be on Belfast for one of the major showpiece occasions of the European club footballing calendar.
Champions Cup winners Chelsea and Europa League holders Villarreal will contest the Uefa Super Cup at the National Stadium at Windsor Park in front of 13,000 spectators, with television coverage beamed around the world to billions of viewers in more than 200 countries.
Excitement and anticipation have been building across the city as fans of both the European giants, many of Uefa's top brass, and big-name pundits such as Rio Ferdinand and Glenn Hoddle, descend on the city for the prestigious game.
With kick-off just hours away, we examine some of the big talking points ahead of the glamour occasion.
What is the Uefa Super Cup?
The Uefa Super Cup is an annual match contested by the reigning champions of the two main European club competitions, devised by Dutch reporter Anton Witkamp to decide definitively the top club side in Europe.
The European Cup/Champions League holders have always been involved, facing the holders of the European Cup Winners' Cup (1972-1999) and then more recently the UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League, from 2000 to the present day.
From 1998 to 2012, the fixture was staged at Monaco's Stade Louis II but since 2013, it has been held in a different European city each year.
Prague 2013, Cardiff 2014, Tbilisi 2015, Trondheim 2016, Skopje 2017, Tallinn 2018, Istanbul 2019, and Budapest 2020, have all been host venues.
Bayern Munich defeated Sevilla 2-1 after extra time in last year's final.
Chelsea will be making their fifth appearance in the fixture, their sole success a 1-0 win over Real Madrid in 1998, while Villarreal is making their debut in the continental showpiece.
The London side qualified by beating English Premier League rivals Manchester City 1-0 in the Champions League final, while Villarreal memorably saw off Manchester United 11-10 in a penalty shootout after their decider ended 1-1 after extra-time.
How did the match end up being played in Belfast?
The hosting of the match is the culmination of years of work and planning put in by the Irish Football Association, in association with Uefa and with backing and direction from the Northern Ireland Executive and Belfast City Council.
The journey began with the agreement to redevelop the Windsor Park ground into a more modern all-seater stadium with a capacity to house in the region of 18,500 supporters.
The £38m project was completed in 2016 and the revamped ground has since hosted Northern Ireland international football matches, cup finals, the Uefa Women's Under-19 Championship, and a high-profile Carl Frampton boxing bout.
The Uefa Men's Under-19 Championship was meant to have been hosted by the association last year but it was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Irish FA bid to host the Super Cup was submitted in early 2019 and the Uefa Executive Committee announced in September that year that the Irish FA had secured the hosting rights.
In May this year, there was speculation that the game may be moved to Istanbul as compensation for Turkey losing the Champions League final to Portugal for the second successive year, but those fears proved unfounded.
IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson commented: "Many of Uefa's top brass, including their president Aleksander Ceferin, will be present and we aim to display that we can put on a great show and showcase Northern Ireland in the best possible light.
"We want to say, 'You can trust Northern Ireland to host great sporting events and please come back.
"We'd love to bid for the Women's Champions League final at some stage and we have the Under-19 finals here in 2024 so we will be looking for other opportunities to host major occasions."
How have plans for the game taken shape?
With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting preparations for the event, subsequent site visits and planning have had to be held virtually, with Peter Gilpin heading up the operation from an IFA perspective.
Belfast and the National Stadium have been dressed with Super Cup branding over recent weeks, with buildings lit up across the city, including Belfast City Hall.
Uefa has had people in Belfast since March to help deliver the match and in recent days more than 100 Uefa staff have arrived to fine-tune everything.
The mammoth operation has seen a large temporary building being erected at Midgley Park beside the Windsor Park stadium. It is being used for hospitality and as an accreditation center.
"A lot of hard work has gone into this project and we have had to deal with a lot of unknowns, such as the number of fans that would be allowed in," explained Project Leader Gilpin.
"We have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to enable people to get to the game and it's great that we can welcome 13,000 fans."
"It's a very special feeling to be able to put on such a big game and I have no doubt it will be a memorable occasion," he added.
What of the competing teams?
Chelsea is one of the household names of the English Premier League, while Villarreal has emerged from the shadows of decorated Spanish giants such as Barcelona and Real Madrid to secure success on the European stage.
Both clubs boast an illustrious array of international talent, with the combined value of both squads thought to be in excess of £1billion.
Chelsea's team may be weakened by the absence of Italian and English internationals who were part of the Euro 2020 final, and possibly others who took part in this summer's championships.
Romelu Lukaku was in London on Tuesday to complete a staggering £96.5m move from Inter Milan, but the finer points of that deal are unlikely to be finalized in time for the Belgian to play in Belfast.
Villarreal boss Unai Emery has never lifted the Super Cup, despite winning the Europa League an unprecedented three times in a row as manager of Sevilla.
Ex-Arsenal and Paris St Germain manager Emery has heaped praise on his opponents on Wednesday night, saying "they can become the best team in the world" this season.
Like his counterpart, Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel spent time in charge of Paris St Germain, before succeeding Chelsea favorite Frank Lampard as boss of the Stamford Bridge outfit.
What is the atmosphere like 'on the street'?
Although numbers have been restricted because of the ongoing restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, supporters of both clubs will welcome the chance to watch their teams in action - an opportunity largely denied them as games in European competition was played in empty or near-empty stadiums last season.
The attendance will be the biggest at a sporting event in Northern Ireland since before the first lockdown in March 2020 and all spectators will be asked to show proof of double vaccination or provide a negative Covid-19 test on entry.
An agreement that traveling Villarreal fans would not have to self-isolate was announced by the Northern Ireland Executive.
Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster program, Rodney Cardwell explained that he had been ferrying his fellow Chelsea followers to "show them the sights of Northern Ireland".
"I've been driving Chelsea supporters from the airport to the north coast and the Giant's Causeway, to let them see what Northern Ireland has to offer," he said.
"We are welcoming the European champions to Belfast and for us, as Chelsea fans, it's a massive event - it's an honor to have them in our national stadium.
"You are pinching yourself that it is actually happening in Belfast. It's such a great feeling, fantastic."
'A great buzz' about the club
Bernard Thompson is general manager of Crusaders FC, which is hosting hundreds of visiting Villarreal fans at their Seaview ground before they travel to Windsor Park for the game.
"The very fact we are involved with this event is superb. There is a great buzz about the club and among the staff.," explained Bernard.
"Around 574 Villarreal fans arrived by charter plane and were taken to Seaview for six or seven hours before going to Windsor.
"We will make sure the supporters enjoy themselves and have a great time - we have a marquee on the pitch, the stadium has been re-branded, there will be live music, stadium tours, inflatables, dancing, and video screens showing the successes of Villarreal in European games.
"We have also had a lot of requests for Guinness and stew!"