May 28, 2011; 1845 GMT
The moment has arrived. European football’s biggest showcase – the finals of the UEFA Champions League – is almost upon us; and as a standard cliché goes, it really doesn’t get any bigger than this as Manchester United take on FC Barcelona at the Wembley arena. For the millions watching at home and the thousands in attendance, the final represents a chance to witness two of the most successful clubs in modern day football locking horns at the biggest stage of all as champions of Spain and England come together in one of the most anticipated duels of the century. The Wembley also holds a special place in both Barcelona’s and United’s folklore as both clubs won their first European cup at the old Wembley.
Barcelona are a team to beat in Europe and that has been the case for a few years now. Their mastery of the beautiful game has been divine and seems almost untouchable for lesser mortals. However, Ferguson’s Manchester United side is no lesser a footballing entity. Appearing in their third finals in four trophy-laden years, the ‘Red Devils’ boast the best European record by any team in the continent over the last half-a-decade. Pep Guardiola’s side, however, bloated that imperious record by beating Fergie’s army in Rome.
Can Ferguson and his team achieve redemption or will Barcelona continue their merry march? Saturday, the 28th of May, can’t come soon enough for both the ‘Cules’ and ‘Devils’ around the world.
Barcelona go into the game aiming to win their third Champions League title in six years. The Catalans have, once again, been brilliant this season scoring goals for fun especially at home. However, their run to the finals has not been controversy free as their victories against Arsenal and Real Madrid had a bit of luck associated with them with crucial decisions going their way. Still, Barcelona are deserved finalists purely on the basis of their brilliant and free-flowing football that never ceases to amaze the world. Having won their third successive La Liga title, Pep Guardiola and his men would be aiming to finish the season on a high by winning the biggest club competition in the world.
Manchester United, on the other hand, head into their third final in four seasons. However, this time their feat deserves more praise than ever as nobody gave them a chance to go this far in the competition. Having been written off at the start of the season and several times during the course of it, Sir Alex’s men have proved their critics wrong by winning a record 19th league title and securing a place in the final at Wembley. On top of that, the Red Devils are unbeaten so far in this year’s competition and have not conceded a goal away from home. But this is by far their biggest test as it it not often that United go into a game as underdogs; something very clear going by the betting trends. Sir Alex, though, would once again be urging his team to defy the odds and win a third European Cup under his management that would take him level with the great Bob Paisley.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Ever since Pep Guardiola took over this team, emphasis on possession has gone up a notch. In his first season, Pep’s men averaged about 61% possession in the whole season. The second season averaged 65% and this season it stands at an incredible 72%. This shows the level of control this team has on each match. There will not be any change in that aspect of the game. Pep’s primary aim will be to maintain control of the ball and the match.
If Manchester United looks to press high up the field, they will have to be at the top of their game to keep possession, something which they can do well. Pedro and Villa will look to stretch the pitch to open up spaces between the defensive players. The importance of Iniesta will be a critical factor for Barca, in order to unlock United’s defences. He is someone who can ghost past markers to dangerous positions. Importance of Xavi and Messi is no secret, but the importance of Busquets is more than most people might think. With him, the side is at its most fluent best. Alves who missed their earlier encounter in 2009 will be available and this will give another problem for United to worry about. He may not be parking himself completely in the attacking third like in most of the matches, but will be heavily involved from the right flank of attack. Barca, on an average, spend about 38% of their possession on this side of the pitch that shows the right-back’s influence.
On paper, the midfield battle is stacked in favor of Barcelona which is an important factor that could decide this game. With Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta patrolling the centre, keeping possession will become much easier. Barca’s defense is a small weakness compared to the mighty strength of their offensive side. Though they have conceded very few this season, they are vulnerable to pace and United possesses it in abundance.
Left back selection will be a headache for Guardiola. With Abidal, Maxwell and Adriano available, he does not have a regular for this position. However, with all three coming back from injuries, 90 minutes from all the three may be not possible. But Abidal has considerable time on the pitch since his stunning return. Playing Puyol at left-back and using Mascherano at the centre might be a disadvantage for Barca in-terms of experience. So, Puyol is likely to partner Pique in the middle and Abidal is likely to play at left-back.
Messi will be playing his ‘false nine’ positions, trying to combine with midfield and attack. But a rapid switching of positions in the final third is expected to unsettle any man-marking if it is employed. Valdes will be on the goal and he will play a vital sweeper role along with his customary keeping work.
Probable Starting lineup: Valdes, Abidal, Puyol, Pique, Alves, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro
Sir Alex is having a selection headache ahead of this game but one which he would surely welcome going into a Champions League final. All of his players are fit for the game and the manager has admitted that it is an agony for him to inform those players who would not be in the squad for Saturday. Going into the final in Rome, two years ago, the manager gave a two week break to all the players before the final but this time he has given game time to all of his players in the last two games against Blackpool and in Neville’s testimonial against Juventus in mid-week. Sir Alex considered that his players needed to be match fit as he thought that the spark went missing in the final two years ago with players having a break before the game. However, how well the ploy will work remains to be seen.
The manager has admitted that the biggest thing while playing against Barcelona is the concentration of the players. Two years ago, United started the match on the front foot, but had a moment’s lapse in concentration that led to a sloppy goal and from then on, there was no way back for the Red Devils. The players would be hoping to avoid that sort of situation and if they manage to do that, they stand a good chance of winning the game.
United are likely to go in with a 4-4-1-1 formation that has been so successful for them in the latter stages of the season specially in the knock-out stages of the competition. The industrious Park and Valencia would be on the wings as their defensive ability would be very important to the team as Barcelona poses a lot of threat through their attacking full-backs. Carrick would be the holding midfielder while veteran Ryan Giggs would be alongside him, pulling the strings for United. Giggs and Park could be seen interchanging places from time to time with Park attracting the full-backs and Giggs looking to exploit the free space left on the flank.
Hernandez would play on the shoulder of Puyol and Pique. He would be looking to exploit the lack of pace in the centre of Barca’s defence and also, the high line of defence used by Pep Guardiola. Rooney would play behind him and would drop back to join the midfield when Barcelona have the ball. In defence, the trusted pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic would be in the centre with Evra as left-back and Van Der Sar, who would be playing his last game for the club, starting in goal. The only dilemma for Sir Alex is to choose between the Da Silva brothers for the right-back role and he is likely to go with Fabio as he has played in the recent big games.
Probable Starting lineup: Van Der Sar, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez
Played 11 – Barcelona 3, United 3, Draws 4
Key Match Facts
1) Both clubs won their first European Cup at Wembley and both have won it three times.
2) Barcelona have scored at least one goal in the last 20 UCL games.
3) Sir Alex is only the third manager to lead a team to 4 European Cup finals.
4) Berbatov last scored a UCL goal in 2009 against Celtic.
Referee: Viktor Kassai
The 35 year-old Hungarian would be officiating at Wembley on Saturday. Kassai has the experience of refereeing 60 UEFA games and was also the referee in Spain’s 1-0 win over Germany in the World Cup ’10 semi-final. He is known to be a smart referee who is willing to keep the cards in his pocket.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Who else, when the little Argentine is on show? Messi has smashed all scoring records this season going onto the score sheet for a record 52 times. He is currently leading the goals scoring charts in the Champions League this season and will finish it that way as none of the United players are anywhere close to him. With the ability to turn a game on its head, as he showed against Madrid at the Bernabeu with two brilliant goals, Messi is the man United must stop if they want to have any chance in this game.
Barcelona 2-1 Manchester United
Both teams have been brilliant so far this season, but Barcelona have proved that they are a class apart having a level above anyone else. It would be an entertaining game but there won’t be any upset in the end as the Catalans would have enough in their armory to see off a resolute United side.
TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST