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Champions League Final Preview

By Harpreet S Dhaliwal

After the 2010-11 Champions League started rather unspectacularly on 29th June 2010 with the forfeited match between FC Santa Coloma and Birkirkara, I, for one, am glad that the Wembley showpiece final has the potential to provide a fitting end to the biggest club competition in the World as Manchester United face Barcelona. Both clubs have recently been crowned domestic Champions in the ‘best’ two leagues for the past five or so years (based on numbers of semi-finalists each of the leagues has provided in that period). This match also offers us the opportunity to see the greatest ever club manager do battle with arguably the greatest ever club team.

These two clubs are very well matched in several ways: both have a rich footballing history; both share the same footballing philosophy – outplay the opposition with attractive football rather than roll out the team bus; both share an inherent trust in the products of their academies; both of them have won the Champions League / European Cup on three occasions; and both share a European love affair with Wembley. In 1968, Bobby Charlton lifted Manchester United’s maiden European Cup. It was a similar story for Barcelona 24 years later, when a certain Josep Guardiola helped Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ to win the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

Unfortunately for one of them, this Wembley love affair will come to an end on Saturday.

The Greatest, defined

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson

The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to become the most successful manager in English domestic history, despite reportedly nearly being sacked in January 1990, and continue to be in charge of Manchester United 21 years later is no accident. The fact that he has won every major club honour with Manchester United at least twice is no accident. The fact that Fergie has done it all and continues to get the most out of a side that were unfancied by many, including me, at the start of the season is no accident. It has been achieved through, inter alia, a complete overhaul at Manchester United; through faith in his youth players; and through exceptional man-management.

Sir Alex Ferguson will be hoping to lay his hands on the Champions League trophy for a third time (This image is the property of The Daily Telegraph)

Club Team: Barcelona’s current side

This Barcelona team, under Pep Guardiola, has won the league in five of the last seven years and for the past three seasons. Only Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team has won four in a row, which is detailed much better than I could ever explain in this article by Sid Lowe. This team has completed an unprecedented Spanish Treble. This team has managed to keep the fired up New Galácticos of Real Madrid – managed by Jose Mourinho, who is still cruelly referred to as ‘The Interpreter’  following his role at Barcelona under Sir Bobby Robson – from winning both the league and progressing past the Semi-Finals of the Champions League this season. This team is good. Pretty, pretty good.

Road to the Final

After ambling through the group stages, each has been tested alternatively in the knock-out stages on the road to Wembley. United had to play Marseille, who are a team very much on the rise; whilst Barcelona were up against Arsenal, a side desperate for revenge after having been humiliated by a Lionel Messi four-goal haul in the previous campaign. Whilst United coasted through, Barcelona had to overcome a 2-1 deficit from the first leg to beat an Arsenal side, who came extremely close to causing an upset.

In the Quarter-Finals, the tables were turned: Barcelona overcame Shakhtar Donetsk comfortably, whilst United had to come through a much sterner test in the shape of Chelsea.

Again, the Semi-Finals saw another swing in the difficulty of opposition. United got the kind draw of facing a Schalke side, which was widely regarded in Germany as one which had peaked in knocking out reigning champions Internazionale and were now out of
their depth. Barcelona earned the right to fight Mourinho’s Real Madrid for the chance to get to the final. It was not a pretty contest, with preposterous allegations and mind-games rather taking the gloss off the football, but one in which the better side ultimately prevailed.

Recent Head to Head History

Whilst most people seem to think – or at least give the impression – that football started in 2009 when Barcelona beat United in the final, they seem to forget that in 2008 a certain Paul Scholes scored a screamer to knock Barcelona out on United’s way to winning the trophy. The most impressive part of that United display was their defence, which managed to keep Barcelona from scoring in both matches.

The 2009 final is remembered by many as the one in which United were played off the park; however, few recall that it was only an
outstanding block from Gerard Pique which prevented Park Ji-Sung from putting United 1-0 up within a minute. After that though, as even Sir Alex admitted, Barcelona were dominant and ended up deservedly taking the trophy.

A few things worth noting here are: that Barcelona are a much better side than they were in 2008, when they finished third in La Liga, 18 points off the pace; and United will not give Barcelona as much time as they did in 2009. I fully expect them to play more aggressively and more attacking football than they did that day and to try to take the game to Barcelona in the same way that they did against Chelsea a few of weeks ago when they effectively wrapped up the Premier League title.

Form coming into the final

Ever since the clásico series of 4 matches in “19 incredibly tough days”  (Guardiola), Barcelona has looked like a team which has played a lot of football over the past few years with seven members of this side playing key roles in the victorious Spanish World Cup winning side last summer. Wrapping up the league title with two games to spare has, however, afforded Barcelona the luxury of resting several of these vital cogs in their machine. It had the unfortunate side effect of meaning that a certain Mr Messi was displaced at the summit of the scoring charts; that accolade was taken by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored an incredible, not to mention record, 40 goals in La Liga.

All eyes will be on the world's best player, Lionel Messi (This image is the property of The Daily Telegraph)

United come in on the ultimate high. After a potentially demoralising defeat against Arsenal at the start of May, they ended Chelsea’s late charge for the league with a comprehensive win at Old Trafford. A cause helped by virtue of their emphatic away  victory in Germany against Schalke, which allowed them to play a reserve side against them in the Old Trafford return leg. They then drew with Blackburn to seal an unprecedented 19th English league title and in the end won the league by an impressive nine points from Chelsea and their “Noisy Neighbours”, Manchester City.

Barcelona ended their season with an astounding goal difference of +74. Their supposedly dodgy defence having only conceded a miserly 21 goals in the league; whereas United’s normally assured defence has conceded an average of just under a goal a game – 37 in 38 games. Whether or not this figure is skewed by the relative strengths of the league is a debate for another day. One thing is certain: Barcelona’s defence will be tested by United this Saturday in a way that few other teams have managed to do in La Liga this season.

Key Players / Battles

I am not going to focus on the obvious talents of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi; but, rather, a potential problem area for Barcelona – their left-back position. Ever since Eric Abidal’s cancerous tumour was diagnosed (and successfully removed), Barcelona have been playing Carles Puyol as a makeshift left back with Javier Mascherano in the middle of the back four. I do not think this will be the wisest move against the threat of the Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia who recently dominated Ashley Cole, who has arguably been the best left-back in the world for several years. How well Abidal copes – if he plays – with Valencia’s pace and trickery will be crucial to Barcelona’s chances in this match, especially with Javier Hernandez around to get on the end of any crosses. Hernandez has been crucial to United’s success in the latter part of this season. He has, of course, scored lots of crucial goals, but his biggest asset to the team has been that he has, more crucially, allowed Wayne Rooney to play in his favoured withdrawn role where he can fizz Hollywood passes around the pitch, get involved in the match and find pockets of space in which to operate, all the while knowing that Hernandez has the guile to be able to keep good defenders sufficiently occupied.

Both defences will need to be wary of the opposition’s attacking instincts and will encounter different problems to those with which they are used to dealing.

Barcelona’s defence is not the fastest and might struggle with the pace at which United can counter attack. Carles Puyol will be instrumental at organising his colleagues to ensure they can curb the threat of Valencia, Park, Hernandez and Rooney on the break.

United’s defence, led by the exceptional Nemanja Vidic, is very good in the air but are less at ease when faced with players with quick feet, as demonstrated by Liverpool’s Luiz Suarez in March. Players like Iniesta, Messi, Villa and Pedro will be exactly what
United will not want to face. Whichever of the da Silva twins plays will have his hands full dealing with the aforementioned Barcelona roamers and will have to ensure he keeps a level head as both are prone to a wild tackle or two.

As is often the case, the game seems as though it will be won in midfield – whoever can better service their strike force will win.

This was where, to my mind, United fell down in 2009. They did not close down Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. They gave them too much time on the ball. They showed them too much respect. True, if you lunge in against these guys, they will make a mug of you more often than not. However, Paul Scholes showed within five minutes of coming on exactly what the United midfielders needed to do much sooner – make a tackle and let them know they are in a game. Barcelona have got even better at keeping the ball since then and have managed to retain an unbelievable 70% possession in several games this season with midfield maestro Xavi managing to complete over 100 passes in several matches – a phenomenal achievement.

United will, as in 2009, miss Darren Fletcher for this game – he has not recovered sufficiently from his virus – and he is a man Ferguson trusts on the big occasion. In his absence, much will depend on the resurgent Michael Carrick, who will be most likely to play alongside the evergreen Ryan Giggs in the centre of the park, flanked by the aforementioned Park and Valencia, whose work rates will help United to deal with Barcelona’s tika-taka football and might also prevent the marauding Daniel Alves from having too much influence on the game.

Prediction

I expect Barcelona to emerge victorious in a well-contested, exciting, open match by a margin of 3 goals to 1.

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Categories: Guest Blogs
  1. Nim
    May 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Im definitely looking forward to it and they have been the best two teams in europe, but equally I think there is a significant gap in quality between the two teams. As you rightly say, the game will probably come down to the midfield, and there’s no contest there. Its barca’s strength and man u’s weakness.

    Man U have to play hernandez up front, and he will throw something different at barcelona, but then there’s the danger that they never have the ball in midfield. See the way they got outclassed for an hour at the emirates at the end of the season by Ramsey and Wilshere. Arsenal is a game they’ve always had success over the last few years by playing 5 in the midfield, but they changed it for hernandez and they struggled.

    Barca definitely havent being playing as well over the last couple of months, as its been a long year for most of them who played in the world cup final, but the rest at the end of the season should have them energised for one last game. I think they would have to play poorly to lose, and given how many big games those players have been involved with together over the last few years (champions league final, euro’s, world cup final, el classico’s), i cant see that heppening. Xavi and Iniesta in particular have been massive game players. United’s defence is so good you cannot count them out, and they should have learnt a lot from the 2009 final, but if they do go for it they could quite easily concede early again and it could be very one sided.

  2. miles
    May 28, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Very interesting harp. I’m thinking 2-1 United. Valencia to have a blinder.

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