“I believe that Barcelona have a little bit better team but it will be a very close affair.” The words of Ossie Ardiles sum up the feeling of almost the entire footballing world; Barcelona are the best team on the planet but if there’s one team who are going to give them a game, it’s Manchester United.
Rome 2009 aside, people would still be predicting a Barcelona victory on Saturday. They’ve time and again destroyed teams with their 4-3-3 come 3-4-3 formation that allows Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to dictate proceedings at will. In Rome two years ago, it was this triumvirate that put paid to United’s aspirations for a successive League and European Cup double.
That night United went all out for a goal in the first ten minutes and Barcelona’s counter-attacking, opening goal was the kind that they’re so used to conceding. Iniesta was allowed to waltz through United’s midfield unopposed in a move that was symbolic of the whole game, for all of the majesty of Messi and Xavi, it was Iniesta who pulled the strings that night in the Italian capital.
Sir Alex Ferguson has since said he knows exactly what went wrong that night and that given the chance, he would rectify the mistakes. The United manager has avoided using the word ‘revenge’ – quite rightly too as revenge would suggest that the win was achieved through detriment to fair play rather than the tactical outclassing it was, but memories of the defeat will surely be used to fire up the team, whom – Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo aside, are largely the same.
Selection dilemmas for Sir Alex appear throughout the pitch; who does he opt for at right-back? Who does he select in midfield? How many should he play in midfield? Who, if anyone, will be the right person to man-mark Messi?
Since the first-leg of the Semi-final at Schalke, Fabio has seen his position within the squad move from second choice left-back to first choice right-back, usurping his brother in the process. It was always said when the twins first came on the scene in 2008 that Fabio was the better of the two, but Rafael’s excellent displays and Fabio’s persistent injuries saw Rafael establish himself as a Manchester United player long before Fabio got the chance.
During the week, Rafael played the final twenty-five minutes of Gary Neville’s testimonial as well as the first forty-five against Blackpool last Sunday. This would make it appear that Fabio has got the nod ahead of his brother but with Rafael being out with injury recently; it could be that he was building up his fitness ready for Saturday. Rafael’s sometimes overzealous nature may however go against him though because of Barcelona’s theatrical proneness.
John O’Shea with nearly 400 first-team appearances could also line-up on Saturday. He’s less likely to go on marauding runs than the twins which is both a positive and a negative. The positive is that he wouldn’t get caught out of position but the negative is that those runs down the wing could be a pivotal aspect of United’s attacking play.
Another potentially key component of how United want to attack Barcelona depends upon who lines up in midfield. Michael Carrick is a certain starter in what will be the biggest game of his Manchester United career. Carrick had a torrid time in Rome that lead to Sir Alex Ferguson launching an almighty shouting attack at the midfielder. His confidence was completely shot and only this season has he started getting back to his understated, influential best.
Carrick had a fantastic game away at Manchester City in November but saved his best performances for the Champions League Quarter-final games against Chelsea. In the games against the West-Londoners, he combined magnificently with Ryan Giggs and it’s widely reported that this will be the central-midfield combination for Saturday’s Final.
That would imply that United will stick with the 4-4-1-1 formation that has worked well in the season’s run-in. The one game where it didn’t – against Arsenal, was when Anderson played in the midfield ahead of Giggs. The Brazilian’s energy and drive didn’t counter the play as well as Giggs’ guile and United rarely looked dangerous in possession.
This could also mean that there’s no room in the team for Darren Fletcher, whose long-lasting, mystery illness looks to have robbed him of the chance to line-up in the Champions League Final for the third time. Fletcher wasn’t selected in 2008 and in 2009 missed the Final through suspension, which many point to as a reason United were so overrun in midfield. Fletcher has a tendency to turn it on in the big games and has previously done fantastic jobs neutralising the finest creative midfielders in Europe, so could still find himself in the team ahead of Giggs. His forward passing however has been poor and if United are to play on the counter-attack, the team will need to passing ability of 37-year-old Giggs.
Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia are certain starters on the wings. Valencia’s link-up play with Rooney has seen the Ecuadorian replace Nani on the right since his return from a broken ankle in March. Park – another player who will be looking to make up for a no-show in Rome, is also likely to be selected over the unfortunate Nani because of his energy which will both counter the threat from Dani Alves and give him problems.
Wayne Rooney will play as the withdrawn striker if United line-up 4-4-1-1 to provide extra cover in midfield and harass Sergio Busquets; whose playing of the ball is almost always the source of Barcelona’s fluid passing stream. Partnering Rooney will be Javier Hernandez, the Mexican dubbed, “the signing of the century” by United’s number ten.
His pace and movement will be vital to United’s European Cup aspirations. Dimitar Berbatov will once more be unlucky to miss out, but his finishing against Blackpool last week ruled out what little chance he had of making the game. United will need pace from the forwards and wingers to stand a chance and for all his brilliance, Berbatov’s style of play would impair this necessity.
The “worst United team in living memory”™ have ninety (or one hundred and twenty) minutes to replicate the second-most successful season in the club’s illustrious history. Some might say, “Football, Bloody Hell.” Me? I’ll just use this opportunity to highlight how extremely proud I am to be a Manchester United fan, the team have showed an incredible unity over the past few months and played fantastic football that would please Sir Matt to boot.
Sir Alex Ferguson and his players have done more than anyone expected, and regardless of the outcome we’re all eternally grateful for what they’ve achieved this season. Now come on United.
We’ll support you evermore.
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Last five meetings:
27/05/2009 – Barcelona 2-0 United
29/04/2008 – United 1-0 Barcelona
23/04/2008 – Barcelona 0-0 United
25/11/1998 – Barcelona 3-3 United
16/09/1998 – United 3-3 Barcelona
1. van der Sar; 20. Fabio, 5. Ferdinand, 15. Vidic, 3. Evra; 25. Valencia, 16. Carrick, 11. Giggs, 13. Park; 10. Rooney; 14. Hernandez.