*Editor's note*: The only content changed from the original post was the full-use of first names in regards to mentioned players
The final whistle blew at Wembley. The score 3-1. For Barcelona. Although Wayne Rooney’s 34th-minute equalizer gave a glimmer of hope, in retrospect, the result was expected. The two one-twos in the build-up to the goal marked, possibly, the only time in the entire match that Manchester United were able to string more than three passes together. I watched the game at a friend’s house with a bunch of other guys, and the hype prior to the game was amazing. There were three Manchester United fans, including myself, and we cheered ourselves hoarse at Rooney’s goal. But that was it. Barcelona knocked the ball around, dominating possession (63% to 37% on the night), with Lionel Messi doing his thing, dancing straight through the United defence in a jaw-dropping manner, and inevitably scored thrice.
The most depressing thing is that no one in Manchester United is to blame. Patrice Evra should have been marking Pedro for the opener, but he does not deserve the blame for the loss. Edwin Van der Sar could have done better with Messi’s goal, but everyone who watched that game will agree that the Argentinian would have scored sooner or later. Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia never stopped running, harrying the Barcelona midfielders. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs battled admirably against the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets; Giggs, in particular, ran over 11 kilometres and the most in the United team, despite his aging legs. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic made countless last-minute tackles to keep their team in the game. Rooney, ever the club’s ace, scored with the one chance he had. Ferguson could have deployed a more defensive formation – like Jose Mourinho did in Real Madrid, using Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso, and Pepe as three defensive midfielders, or Guus Hiddink in Chelsea with Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, andFrank Lampard stifling the Barcelona midfield – but he does not have a combative midfielder, the one position Manchester United lacks in comparison to their Premier League rivals. Manchester United has improved since the 2009 final in Rome, and on Saturday fought face-to-face with Barcelona; however, their opponents, who also, incredibly, have grown in the two years, were simply, indisputably, unquestionably better, as Ferguson, Ferdinand, and Vidic all admitted after the match. I’m not here to provide an analysis of the game because there is a countless number of those already, and because it would conclude with this same conclusion. The important question is, where to go from here?
First of all, there are the league’s top scorer and top assister. Nani, who has 9 goals and 18 assists in the Premier League this season, was brought on as a substitute in the 69th minute. He has expressed disappointment at being left out of the starting eleven but also has stated that the manager’s decision must be respected. The bigger problem is Dimitar Berbatov, who scored 21 times in the league but was left out of the eighteen-man squad to face Barcelona. He reportedly left Wembley before the final whistle, and it seems likely that he will leave Old Trafford sooner rather than later. Certainly, either Berbatov or Michael Owen should leave this summer, if the team is to avoid internal conflict. Rooney-Chicharito partnership has fully blossomed, and neither the Bulgarian nor the 2001 Ballon d’Or winner will break into the starting eleven anytime soon. As of now, the former seems the more likely to leave, and perhaps it will be a wise idea to cash in now, as he is already 30, and his contract is due to expire in 2012.
In defence, major transfers are not necessary as Rafael, Fabio, Chris Smalling, and Jonny Evans are all promising prospects while captain Vidic should remain world-class for at least another two years. However, a new goalkeeper to succeed Edwin van der Sar is a must. Tomasz Kuszczack has declared his intention to leave (he does not have enough quality anyway), and the Dane Anders Lindegaard is more of a back-up. Reports claimed that Manchester United have completed the signing of David De Gea for 17 million pounds. Despite the Spaniard’s undeniable talent and his numerous heroics for Atletico Madrid, it is yet to be seen whether he will be United’s first choice keeper, given his young age. Wes Brown could be allowed to leave, after making just 7 league appearances this season; John O’Shea, on the other hand, will likely stay as a reliable utility man.
In attack, major renovations are, again, unnecessary. Rooney and Chicharito will likely continue to impress next season and, when the latter gains a bit more experience, will trouble any defence. One of Berbatov or Owen will likely leave, and perhaps Bebe should also be sold after failing to impress against even fifth-division side Crawley Town. However, with Federico Macheda set to return from a loan spell at Sampdoria, there should not be problems in terms of depth.
It is the midfield that needs the most work, with Paul Scholes and Giggs will both return in the near future. Owen Hargreaves should certainly be allowed to leave; he has played just five minutes of competitive football all season. Darron Gibson has failed to develop into a quality midfielder, and although he probably will not leave this summer, time is gradually running out for him. There are no problems on the wing, with Valencia, Nani, and Park all set to feature next season. However, the most important thing is to buy two world-class centre midfielders, one who can pick apart defences with through-balls and one who can protect the back four. Luka Modric and Wesley Sneijder have both been heavily linked to Manchester United in recent months. Although no defensive midfielders have been linked in detail, it is definitely a position Ferguson should look to strengthen, as neither Fletcher nor Carrick is a true defensive midfielder.
Ferguson, who probably knows better than any of us bloggers, will probably make just two or three signings this summer, going for the effective rather than the flashy. Despite his polite words lauding the otherworldly skills of the Barcelona team that bested us at Wembley, his pride certainly must have taken a blow, as he lost twice in two Champions League finals to the same team – one that was not even at its best as captain Carles Puyol did not feature in the starting eleven. He will have set his sight upon devising a method to defeat the seemingly undefeatable Barcelona, and for this reason, Manchester United will be back next season stronger than before.
On a final note, Manchester United can hold their heads up high after a valiant outing in the Champions League final, while we fans worldwide can be grateful to be able to watch a Barcelona team who have perfected the art of football.
P. S. On a lighter note, Chicharito’s miserable performance against Barcelona can be blamed upon Pele, who before the match, predicted that the Mexican will be the next Messi. So if his career spirals inexplicably downhill, at least we know why.