On Saturday evening, two of the world's great football clubs, FC Barcelona and Manchester United, will clash in the UEFA Champions League final at one of the grand cathedrals of the football world, Wembley Stadium -- the victors will be crowned the kings of Europe. There is recent history between the two giants; United were victorious three seasons ago in a Champions League semi-final tie after Paul Scholes' cracker at Old Trafford sent his side to the final, where the Reds went on to defeat Chelsea FC on penalties. Just a year later, Barcelona earned vengeance in Rome during the final in a convincing 2-0 victory over United. Now just two years later, the two sides meet again and will not only battle for European glory in London, but United will also look to earn respect from critics who say the current side lack "fantasy" whilst their Catalan counterparts will look to cement their legacy as one of football's all-time great sides.
MANCHESTER UNITED: United come into the tie as champions of England for a record 19th time, a feat that allowed them to knock bitter rival Liverpool FC off their perch. The English giants have lifted the European Cup three times during their prestigious history, the last two under the guidance of current manager Sir Alex Ferguson. It was 43 years ago, at old Wembley Stadium, when manager Sir Matt Busby led the Reds, with past greats Bobby Charlton and George Best, to their first taste of European triumph over Benfica and the great Eusebio. If Fergie is able to lead his side to victory on Saturday night at new Wembley, with current greats Ryan Giggs and Scholes, he will then join Liverpool's Bob Paisley as the only other manager to lift the European Cup thrice.
The Reds come into the match with a relatively clean bill of health. John O'Shea has been struggling with a slight leg injury but he is expected to be available. Owen Hargreaves continues to be out with long-term injuries. Because United locked up the league title weeks ago, Fergie has been able to provide some key players much needed rest after the rigorous run-in. Injury isn't an issue for the Gaffer, but rather choosing the right combination of in-form players from a deep squad.
BARCELONA: The side from Catalonia enter the final as champions of Spain for the third consecutive season. Much praise and adulation has come the way of this current edition of Barcelona as their uniquely brilliant brand of football has brought a collection of winner's medals in recent seasons. Just as United did in 1968, the Catalan club lifted their first European Cup at old Wembley in 1992; and they also share the feat of being crowned champions of Europe on three occasions. FC Barcelona have become a symbol of Catalan culture and this is embodied by the club motto: Mes que un club (translation: More than a club).
Barcelona have been relatively fortunate to avoid significant injury through their championship campaign. Like their English counterpart, the Spanish side earned their league title weeks prior to this final, thus manager Pep Guardiola has been able to rest key squad members. Perhaps this is a bigger benefit to Barca because they don't quite have the quality depth of United. Thus, squad rotation occurred less frequently and Barcelona appeared to fatigue during their run-in. The good news for them is that skipper Carlos Puyol appears to be fully fit and ready for the tie after struggling through much of the latter half of the season with injury. Eric Abidal has made an inspired return to his side after missing just under 2 months with a tumor on his liver (which has been safely removed). Defenders Maxwell and Adriano have also made recent returns from injury as well.
Predicting a lineup for Fergie is always a daunting task and possibly made even more difficult because of the unique challenge presented by the brilliant Barcelona. During the final two years ago in Rome, the trio of Michael Carrick, Anderson, and Giggs were completely overrun in the center of the pitch and Fergie moaned about how much his side missed the bite of the suspended Darren Fletcher. This perhaps will be a factor in the Gaffer's choice of personnel and shape. But because of Fletcher's recent struggles with a mysterious virus, one that sapped his fitness, it is unlikely the Scotsman starts. In addition, Fergie's recent first-choice side has guided United well during this successful run-in. Therefore, it is likely that United play in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hydrid shape. This would involve Carrick shielding his defense as a deep-lying playmaker, Giggs in the center as a box-to-box midfielder, and Wayne Rooney playing withdrawn as a trequartista. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez could get the nod at striker and he may be flanked in the attack by Park Ji-sung on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right. The defense is more predictable: Edwin van der Sar will make one more appearance in goal prior to his retirement, skipper Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will be the center-back pairing, and Patrice Evra will play left-back. Right-back remains an area of mystery, but Fabio may get the nod over his twin brother Rafael and over O'Shea.
Selection for Barcelona will likely be a familiar one. In the attack line of their fluid 4-3-3/3-4-3 shape, Lionel Messi will lead the line as a "false-nine." David Villa will cut in from the left and Pedro in from the right. Sergio Busquets will play deep as a holding midfielder and will often act as a third center-back, or libero, when Barca's full-backs bomb forward into attack. Xavi Hernandez is the midfield maestro and Andres Iniesta is a bit more attack minded in the center. In defense, Victor Valdes is the Barca No 1. Former United player, Gerard Pique, will start at center-back and Dani Alves will play right-back. Puyol will start, but recent speculation is that it will be at left-back rather than his usual position of center-back. If Puyol plays on the left, Javier Mascherano likely plays at center-back, but Abidal is a possibility as well. If Puyol plays center-back, expect to see Abidal at left-back.
* The "Xavi-Messi-Iniesta problem" : When it was determined a few weeks back that United would be battling Barcelona in the final, Fergie had this to say in an interview with Sirius XM:
"What we have to do is find a solution Xavi-Messi-Iniesta problem."
The mesmerizing Messi is regarded by most as the world's greatest player, so finding a solution to his genius is an obvious goal. There is a strong tactical factor in this. In the 2009 final, a time in which Messi was more commonly seen cutting in from the right, he surprised United by playing the role of a 'false-nine,' a role in which he mostly plays now. It can be argued that Barcelona play in a shape that has no striker; the Argentine attacker likes to operate deep in the space between the opposition's defense and midfield lines. Just as it did in the 2009 final, confusion often results as to who should mark Messi; seemingly, no clear trend has come about yet as to how to solve this problem. Should his deep movements be tracked by either Vidic or Ferdinand, or with a holding-midfielder such as Carrick, or should he be passed off during his movements and be zonally marked?
The latter is probably the best solution in theory, but that tactic is the most difficult to apply. It requires keen reading of Barcelona's attack and constant communication. Luckily for United, they have arguably the world's best center-back tandem in Vidic and Ferdinand; a pairing that rarely gaffes. If they zonally defend and neither gets dragged deep, both will often find themselves marking space and not a man. Positional awareness and smart governing will needed by United in defense if they are to be one of the first sides to foil Messi.
However, if you ask Fergie about United's troubles in 2009...
"It wasn't really Messi who was the problem. It was Iniesta and Xavi. They can keep the ball all night long."
Xavi is the heartbeat of Barcelona and he will most likely be the player in this final that has the most touches on the ball and more pass attempts than any other player. Anderson was naturally positioned to be his foil in the 2009 final, but the then 21-year-old was poor and he was subbed off early. Giggs will likely be the player that matches up with Xavi this time and there may be two keys for the Welshman: (1) when United are out of possession, never be more than a few yards away from Xavi so that he can be closed down quickly; this may limit more direct passes and force Xavi to hit simple square passes. (2) Be a threat himself by selectively surging forward in attack and force Xavi, who is an underrated defender, to expend energy tracking him.
Carrick possibly has the toughest defensive task in this final because he could potentially be doing battle on two fronts; Iniesta and Messi. Iniesta troubled Carrick quite a bit in the 2009 final and this resulted because he simply gave the Spaniard too much time on the ball. Amid the confusion in Rome in dealing with Messi's movements, Carrick wasn't sure whether to pick up Messi's deep movement or whether to close down Iniesta. This hesitation resulted in him failing to do either. This dilemma will once again arise on Saturday night.
* Rooney vs Busquets: A few years back, it was Xavi who was criminally underrated, but the midfield maestro began to get his due after a superb Euro 2008 campaign for Spain. Perhaps the Barcelona midfielder, and Spain international, that is criminally underrated now is Busquets. The deep-lying midfielder is superb defensively as his tremendous positioning is vital when Barcelona interchange between a 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 (1:38 mark) shape. In addition, he's terrific technically; his tidy and assured distribution help Barca ignite attacks from deep.
How well Rooney and Busquets do in attempting to contain each other will be an important factor in how the match results, assuming of course that United play in a shape that allows Wazza to play in the hole. Because Barcelona will undoubtedly dominate possession at Wembley, Rooney must be consistent in tracking back and occupying Busquets. If Busquets is given space and time on the ball, he will continually get the ball to the Catalan midfielders and attackers; thus, United will be pinned back all night.
When in possession, Rooney's movement is intelligent, both vertically and horizontally. Even against sides that have deployed a strict holding-midfielder, the United number ten has done consistently well to slip his marker, find space, and terrorize defenses. The only exception was Arsenal's Alex Song. Busquets may find himself having the issue of covering for Alves on United counter-attacks and if this is the case, the Spaniard may find himself letting the dangerous Wazza to roam free. If United find goal-scoring chances in this final, it likely will result from pace and precision on the break; goal-scoring chances will happen if Busquets doesn't adequately mark Rooney.
*Dani Alves v Park: Containing the daring and dynamic Dani Alves is crucial. Quite simply, both the work-rate and the football brain of the Brazilian are exceptional. The right-back is a terror down the touchline and the width that he provides compliments the narrowness in attack from Barcelona's midfielders and attackers. Although still technically a full-back in Barcelona's back-four, Alves provides many of same attack qualities that the great Brazilian wing-backs, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, did. The marauding runs of the right-back has even led Sid Lowe to audaciously declare Alves the world's 2nd best player. In a closer look at Alves, I discussed how Park, who likely will be tasked on the left flank for United, will need to check the run runs of the Brazilian:
Park's role, if deployed on the left flank as expected, will be simple: the Korean must track the runs of Alves. The task may be simple in design, but the application of the design and it's degree of success (or failure) will be crucial; it quite possibly will be the most important tactical match-up in the Champions League final. Park's work-rate is tremendous as well, and also like Alves, he possesses an intelligent tactical brain. Barcelona will likely control anywhere from 55-75% of possession in this match and during this time, Park must man-mark Alves. When the Korean does decide to leave Alves, it must be selective, necessary, and intelligent.
Whilst the ability of the Park to track and defend Alves will be crucial on Saturday in order for United to contain the Barca attack, the Korean's underrated ability in attack, particularly on the counter, might be a key component for the English side to potentially hurt their Catalan counterpart on the break.
* United's counter-attack: It's become quite a cliche by now but there is still truth in this sentiment; Barcelona will dominate possession and United will look to hit their opponent on the counter. Each (projected) United attacker will play a vital role (assuming 4-4-1-1):
(A) Chicharito - Against Barca's likely high-line in defense, the young Mexican's pace will be an important threat as he'll look to slip his marker for one-on-one opportunities in behind the defense. Also, Chicharito should look to drag his marker wide, particularly in the potential space behind Barcelona's full-backs; thus space will be created through the middle for midfield runners. His movement will be critical in this match.
(B) Rooney - It's already been discussed but Rooney needs to act as an auxiliary midfielder when his side is out of possession. On the counter, his deep positioning allows his side a link player between the midfield and attack; thus, United won't always be forced to just punt the ball long in an effort to simply relieve pressure.
(C) Park - One of the underrated qualities of the Korean is his knack for finding pockets of space through his intelligent movement. This may prove crucial as United look to quickly counter Barca's pressing while attempting to hit on the break. Park's involvement in one of the great counter-attacking goals (3:37 mark) in recent memory exhibits his value on counter-attacks.
(D) Valencia - Whether it ends up being Puyol, Abidal, Maxwell, or Adriano, this match-up for Valencia is anticipated to be the most opportunistic one for United. Because of this, it wouldn't be surprising if United concentrated their attack down the right-side through the Ecuadorian winger. In the match at West Ham United in early April, "all roads led to Valencia" in attack. It's possible that United's passing chalkboard could look like this on Saturday:
(E) Giggs & Carrick - If the in-form 37-year-old Giggs has an attacking impact on this final, it will be because he's running at defenders with surging runs, making delayed runs into the box when Valencia and Rooney create, interchanging fluidity with Park on the left in attack, and providing a final ball for the attackers. Carrick will simply need to link play and not turn the ball over when he's closed down quickly by Barca's pressing game. If he can play to the feet of the wide players, Giggs, or Rooney, he will have done his job in attack.
* Narrow positioning by United full-backs: Villa and Pedro will initiate their movements from out wide, but both will look to cut inside and move into the space that Messi leaves whilst dropping deep. Both Evra and whoever United's right-back ends up being, will probably be forced to play narrower than usual. If they don't, confusion will ensue and the United center-backs will have the dilemma of tracking the runs of the wide attackers whilst also having to keep track of Messi. If the full-backs do make an adjustment and play more narrow, then space will be available for Barcelona's full-backs to get forward into. In this case, Park and Valencia must track back to defend this open space.
* Start fast.... and press early?: In any football match, its quite obviously a tremendous advantage to score first. In this particular match, United will likely be in much more trouble if they go down 1-0 as opposed to the reverse scenario. In 2009, United dominated the first ten minutes of the match until Barcelona scored against the run of play. From there, United struggled mightily and Barca simply passed around their opponents and killed off the match. If the Catalan side score first on Saturday night, the same scenario may play out.
A possible tactical move by Fergie could be to press Barcelona in the early going and look to win the ball back in the attacking half of the pitch. This certainly wouldn't be sustainable for a full 90, especially with Barca's possession game, but perhaps United could look to disrupt their opponents in an aggressive pursuit of an early goal. United typically start matches well and if they could get an early goal, the dynamic of the entire match would change.
* Set-pieces and United's aerial threat: Set pieces don't consistently yield goals, even for those who are either terrific or terrible at them. But United certainly have the advantage here and they will look to use their physical advantage to steal a goal. On corners and on free-kicks from acute angles, United will target Vidic. Puyol, despite his lack of height, is brilliant in the air. Pique, despite now being a world-class center-back, can be vulnerable at times in the air (United fans are nodding in agreement).
If Puyol is tasked out wide in defense, then United should look to whip in crosses for Chicharito and Rooney. Despite lacking height, the two United attackers have proven to be strong finishers in the air. If Mascherano is playing center-back, he will be a liability on crosses whipped in from the run of play. United have a decided advantage in the air in this match.
* Substitutions and tactical changes (3-4-3?): If United play the expected XI, it'll be interesting to see who makes the bench. Berbatov and Nani likely will make it and each obviously provide tremendous attacking options. I'd propose including 3 central midfielders; Fletcher, Anderson, and Scholes. If bite is needed, both Fletcher and Anderson could possibly provide that. If someone is needed to relieve pressure, or even close out a lead, the legendary Scholes could provide that with his assured distribution. If O'Shea is healthy, he could provide cover at both full-back and center-back; a physical presence isn't needed versus Barcelona.
However, its suspected that Fergie has a tactical trick up his sleeve if United go down and need to chase an equaliser. United may go 3-4-3. This would potentially involve bringing on Chris Smalling for Park; that would involve a back 3 of Vidic, Ferdinand, and Smalling - two wingbacks in Evra and potentially Fabio - and an attack line of Rooney (left), Chicharito, and Valencia. In this hypothetical scenario, you'd have the two outside center-backs picking up the wide attackers with likely Ferdinand sweeping. Carrick would likely pick up Messi. Fascinating...
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 Manchester United
SBN's Barcelona site: Barca Blaugranes