Manchester United will conclude their United States pre-season tour tomorrow night in a friendly versus FC Barcelona in Washington D.C. at FedEx Field. Despite the exhibition nature to the match, it is one that is highly anticipated because it comes just two months after their meeting in the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley. The occasion should be grand as the champions of England and Spain will look to put on a show for the 90,000 or so that will be in attendance and also for the worldwide viewing audience.
For the Catalan side, this is the first stop of their tour through the United States. After just competing in the Audi Cup, Barcelona will continue on after tomorrow's night match to play Chivas Guadalajara, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez's former club, in Miami and then Club America in Arlington. For tomorrow night's encounter, Barcelona will have a significant portion of their squad unavailable: Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves, Adriano, Gabriel Milito, and the newly acquired Alexis Sanchez will all take a rest after their participation in Copa America. Jonathan Soriano will also out after suffering from a ligament injury during Barcelona's participation in the Audi Cup.
This will be the fifth and final match for United in their preseason preparation for their upcoming season. In their first four clashes, all of which were against Major League Soccer (MLS) sides, the Reds outscored their opponents 18-2. After the exhibition versus Barcelona, United will travel back to England where they will have Paul Scholes' testimonial and the Community Shield match versus Manchester City. The English champions have mostly gotten through the pre-season unscathed in regards to injury, however, the prolific goal-scoring sensation Chicharito is out due to a concussion suffered during training while in New Jersey. Darren Fletcher and Antonio Valencia remain in Manchester while recovering from a virus and injury, respectively.
While this is mostly a futile exercise when considering the nature of the match, I will go ahead and have a go anyway at this because discussing the possible player combinations can still provide some sort of player preview for Saturday night. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has stated during the tour of his regrets over last summer's preparation - specifically that the 45 minutes per match he was giving his first-choice guys did not adequately get fitness levels high enough for the season's beginning. Thus, on Saturday night, the eleven players that start can expect to play at least a full hour.
£18.9 million newcomer David de Gea likely starts in goal. The 20-year-old Spaniard has only been featured once during the tour and he likely plays the full 90 versus Barcelona. With neither da Silva twin featured much during Wednesday's match versus the MLS All-Stars, it is possible that each starts at full-back - Rafael on the right and Fabio on the left. Captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are the clear first-choice center-back tandem, but Chris Smalling may get the start for the latter in this match. Ryan Giggs also sat out on Wednesday and the ageless legend could start in the center. It would be reasonable to expect any of Michael Carrick, Anderson, or Tom Cleverley alongside the Welshman. Nani came on as a substitute on Wednesday and the Portuguese winger may get the start versus Barcelona. On the opposite flank, Ashley Young may be the most likely starter after Park Ji-sung went the full 90 on Wednesday during a "MVP" perfomance. Any two of Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, or Michael Owen are the likely starters up top - but either Danny Welbeck or Federico Macheda are possibilities as well. If Ferguson elects to play in a 4-3-3 shape, the attacking line may feature either Owen or Berbatov leading it with Rooney and Nani possibly as the wide forwards.
With some help from Arron Duckling over at Barca Blaugranes, we make a guess at what Barcelona's lineup may be. Arron suggested that Victor Valdes would start in goal with the possibility of Gerard Pique and Fontas as the center-back pairing. If Eric Abidal were to slide over into the center, Maxwell could be the starting left-back - if not, expect Abidal there. Jonathan Dos Santos is the projected right-back with Dani Alves unavailable. In the midfield, Arron projected that Sergio Busquets would shield the defense as the holding midfielder, Thiago Alcantara as the controlling playmaker, and Andres Iniesta as the incisive playmaker. If Xavi Hernandez starts, this could move Thiago into the incisive playmaker role and Iniesta up front to the attacking line. With Messi and Sanchez not playing, the projected attacking line is Ibrahim Afellay, David Villa, and Pedro.
Here's a guess at who may possibly start:
What to look for:
Generally in this part of our previews, I try to provide a few tactical keys ahead of the match. But because this is a friendly, the relevance of tactics is minimal. Therefore, here are a few things to keep an eye on if you are a United supporter:
* David de Gea: Fergie has already indicated that the Spaniard will get the start at Wembley versus City when the two square off in a Community Shield derby match. Also, because he has only appeared in the match versus the Chicago Fire during the current tour, it is likely that de Gea gets a chance to go a full 90 against the European champions - a side which he should be fairly familiar with after his last two seasons with Atletico Madrid. Anders Lindegaard has had a fine tour thus far and the 20-year-old de Gea will need to put in solid performances in the early going of his United career in order to fend off challengers for United's No 1. Whoever United's goalkeeper is on Saturday night, likely de Gea, he will face a stern challenge from the Catalan side.
* Berbatov & Nani: Both attackers were vital in United's 19th league title last year as each arguably carried the attack during the fist half of the season. Berbatov was the co-Golden Boot winner while Nani should have been shortlisted for every Player of the Year award. However, each lost their starting spots during United's successful run-in as Chicharito and Antonio Valencia both thrived because of tactical reasons and incredible form. With Chicharito's concussion, a condition which could jeopardize the early portion of his season, and Antonio Valencia recovering from an injury suffered during Copa America, both Berbatov and Nani have a chance to earn back their starting spots with continual solid performances. Each have shown flashes of brilliance during this current U.S. tour.
* The Youngsters: In general, it is simply fun to watch young talent and to try to project how they might help the club in the future, or even in the near-term. Players like de Gea, Rafael, Fabio, and Smalling are certainly going to be key contributors for the upcoming season but other players like Cleverley, Phil Jones, Welbeck, and Macheda are all exciting talents that are currently fighting for a prominent role at United. Most of these players will likely get a run at some point on Saturday night and it will be intriguing to observe on how they fare against a side that is likely the best in the world right now. With concerns over Fletcher's health and the lack of purchases in central midfield thus far during the current transfer window, it may be Cleverley that has the most to gain in the coming months. A solid performance versus the world's best midfield would send notice to Sir Alex and the United brass.
SBN's Barcelona site: Barca Blaugranes
Pre-Match Podcast: Barca Blaugranes podcast - where I rambled as the guest and talked United
Match Tickets: SBN Tickets