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There cannot be a bigger match in the European circuit. On the 28th of May, 2011, Manchester United will clash with FC Barcelona at the Wembley for the topmost prize in European Club Football – The Champions League.

Keeping with the tradition of TheHardTackle, here’s The Rival Rendezvous© where in-house representatives of the respective clubs question each other regarding the opposition. The questions, of course, are not limited to the impending match.

Representing Manchester United, we have Nipun Malhotra, a die-hard Red Devil, and in Barcelona’s corner, we have Anustup Sikdar, a Blaugrana forever.

AS will start off with answering NM’s questions.

NM: Watching FC Barcelona over the years, one can’t help but admire their brand of football. However, I have always felt that the Frank Rijkaard’s Barca side was more entertaining than the current lot. The Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Deco side created magic and I would be dumbfounded at times just watching them create vivid pictures on screen. As a lifelong ‘Cule’ which one do you prefer? Obviously, the current all conquering Barca side has won everything that could be won and at times with ridiculous ease, but just for pure aesthetic value, Rijkaard’s Barca or Pep’s?

.AS: As a lifelong Cule, I cannot obviously choose. We had faith in the system, in our La Masia, in the values instilled in us. It’s not a seasonal thing. It took us more than two decades to reach where we are today. It’s not any individual, it’s the entire system. However, we are indebted to Rijkaard, Ronaldinho, Deco, Eto’o, Laporta and others, who contributed in their own unique way to make their stay special. And the epicenter of that faith is undoubtedly a Dutchman who helped us – Johan Cruyff.

As a player and manager, Cruyff brought about the essence of Total Football at Camp Nou. Whatever we are, it has to be attributed to Cruyff and the values instilled by him. We had faith in his abilities and intelligence and that’s paying off now. Pep Guardiola is just carrying forward the legacy at FC Barcelona. I reiterate, it won’t be fair to either side if I were to choose.

25 trophies for FC Barcelona - 16 as player; 9 as manager

NM: The thing that strikes me most about both the Spanish Giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, is the fact they seem too obsessed with each other. The rivalry no doubt is humongous, however, there is a bit of contempt towards the rest of the footballing world, almost oblivious to any other club’s presence. The El Clasico Semi final was built as the game of the century – a clash between the two biggest clubs in European football and rather amusingly the clash between the best two managers in football. Manchester United & Sir Alex would like to disagree to that. One more thing – was the semi-finals really your finals?

.AS: I fully agree to what Sir Alex and Manchester United feel. Real Madrid is a huge opposition. However, they were just another hurdle on the way to Wembley. Spain has always been a country where the Catalans and Castilians were at loggerheads with each other. This epic rivalry has also carved a niche for itself in the realm of football or any sport for that matter. FC Barcelona, the Catalan flag-bearer, and Real Madrid, the unofficially official club of Spain, have always had it bitter on the pitch. This is something which can never be wiped out. So to finally answer your question – the semi-final was not our final. We have a bigger battle to fight, a tougher war to win!

NM: Now the question you would surely have been expecting, the furore over the Barcelona player’s play acting in the Real game was surreal. Firstly, did you think it was any worse than any of your previous games? Also were you expecting the media sh*t storm that emerged in the aftermath of that game at the Bernabeu?

AS: I must make one point very clear. I despise play-acting as much as I loathe intentional physical brutality on the field. In fact they are two faces of the same coin. Turning a blind eye to one and highlighting the other is nothing but sheer hypocrisy! Media blows everything out of proportion. Why did no one point out that Jose Mourinho’s rise to stardom is because of a blunder by the referee? Why did no one point out that Jose, who claims that he’d be ashamed to win like Barcelona, himself won many times because of blunders? The media always makes a a mountain out of a molehill. Yes the play-acting episode was deplorable, but so were Jose’s unabashed claims of fair play! I expected the media furore.

NM: Taking nothing away from Barca, who have been phenomenal once again this season, but hypothetically how do you envisage your club performing over the course of a season in the Barclays Premier League – better or worse?

.AS: I seriously don’t know. However, I think Mr. Andy Gray is better qualified to answer this question (wink).

NM: Now, on to the mesmerizing Lionel Messi – is there a way to contain this guy, seriously? I really can’t imagine one. United were thoroughly outplayed last time around in Rome. Ineista was sublime that night, as he and Xavi ran rings around the United midfield. Do you foresee a similar coasting this time around also and are you comfortable with the favourites tag?

.AS: Definitely not! I have always believed that – Never wound what you cannot kill. We wounded Manchester United, seriously in Rome. This time, Sir Alex will be better prepared and will definitely mean business. I do not foresee a similar outing. On the contrary, I’d prefer to say that Manchester United are the favourites, albeit by a small margin. Actually, in these one-off matches, you cannot really have favourites (I’d still say United are the favourites), especially when it’s the final. I am definitely not comfortable with the favourites tag!

NM: As an outsider to the English game, how do you visualize Manchester United as a football club? Is there any player in the Man United squad who you consider as a threat? And lastly who is your favourite Manchester United player of all time? Well you can name more than one if you want.

.AS: I seriously do not believe that I am an outsider to English football! I quite like Everton and Arsenal. However, to the answer of your question, I’d like to quote what Leo said. For me, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez are the most difficult-to-handle Man United players. I am saying this keeping in mind the presence of a host of extremely talented players. But, these three are special. Whenever they take the pitch, they mean serious business. That’s scary. My favourite Manchester United player would be Ryan Giggs, Scholes and quite surprisingly Fabien Barthez. Barthez was quite a colourful character, I must say!

Now the roles are reversed, as NM prepares for his turn in the hot seat.

AS: Xavi and Dani Alves claimed that United are a better team without Ronaldo? Do you agree? If yes, then why?

.NM: Well that’s a tricky one straight away! The general perception has been that the present United side isn’t as strong as the vintage Fergie sides of yester years. So it’s good to know that Xavi and Dani think otherwise, which again could just be mind games to be honest.

However, the 2007-09 side reached two consecutive Champions League finals and won the league three years in a row; so certainly that wasn’t any ordinary outfit. Having said that, the present side is playing more as a team and Ferguson has made the side perform more than the sum of its parts. Team work has at times presided over individual brilliance, although we still have more than one match winner in our side.

AS: How would you approach this game, if you were in Ferguson’s place? What lesson could you have possibly taken from the match against us in Rome in 2009?

NM: To be honest, we started off quite well in Rome and had we capitalised on those early chances, who knows what might have happened. Barca scored against the run of play and after that there was certainly no way back.

This time around we would most certainly field a 4-4-1-1, with Hernandez looking to exploit the lack of pace at the heart of the Barca defence. Rooney’s presence just ahead of the midfield is pivotal to our success, and his match up with Busquets could decide the tie; he won the battle against Essien and United dominated the tie against Chelsea.

Obviously Messi on his day could win it on his own; he is a level above everyone else and this comes from a Ronaldo fan. Park would be the man chasing and harrying the little Argentine. The South Korean is United’s secret weapon, one that never fails to deliver in a big duel.

AS: Jose Mourinho constantly cribs that FC Barcelona doesn’t win fairly. In England too, many people claim that referees favour United and have even renamed injury time as United’s Time? Do you think that two of the most controversial teams are playing in Wembley?

.NM: Heavy lies the head that bears the crown! Big teams do get favorable decisions at times but it would be foolish to think that the decisions don’t even out. Actually, United tend to win even when decisions don’t go our way in a match, and hence those decisions are easily forgotten.

Also, I think it is unfair to drag United alongside Barca in this arguement. While I agree there are some decisions in England that favour us, but such things even out in the end for all the top sides in the league. Moreover, United nearly have had controversy-free European adventures for the last 4 years (barring the last minute penalty decision against Chelsea – which also, when looked closely, happened outside the box). While, on the other hand, Barcelona have been surrounded by controversy – be it the Bridge Fiasco, Busquets red card against Inter or the night against Real this season.

And, it’s called The Fergie time, mate! We always score late in games and that displays character. We are proud of our ability to win even even when time seems to be running out – what’s there to be ashamed about?

AS: Many have touted Josep Guardiola as the most appropriate successor of Sir Alex? Do you agree? Why?

.NM: I honestly don’t know, to be honest. I have never imagined life at United without the Great Scot. He’s into his 25th year as the manager of the Red Devils; can you really blame us if we appear spoilt?

Nevertheless, Pep seems to be a humble guy; he has been hugely successful and that too playing the game the right way. If he was chosen as the man to take over from Sir Alex, I would probably accept the decision with open arms.

Sir Alex Ferguson - 36 trophies in 25 years for Manchester United

AS: What do you have to say about referring standards in Europe this season?

.NM: Appalling – that should sum it up, I guess. However the constant diving, faking injuries and imaginary card waving by players hasn’t helped the referee’s cause either. Respect campaign has been an utter and total failure. UEFA has tried to improve the situation by adding officials behind the goal post; however, the extra officials don’t seem too inclined to help out the main referee. The situations hasn’t improved, not by any great deal anyway. Goal line technology is definitely the way forward, sooner the better.

With this, The Rival Rendezvous ends here. Here’s hoping for a fantastic finale. May the better team win.


Follow Nipun Malhotra at Twitter @malhotra_nipun

Follow Anustup Sikdar at Twitter @anustupsikdar

Follow TheHardTackle at Twitter @thehardtackle