Thursday, 5 May 2011

Champions League Final Preview

And then there were two. All other contenders and pretenders have fallen by the wayside. Inter Milan and Bayern Munich provided a cute diversion for twelve months or so but there once again we find ourselves with the two most dominant clubs in the two most dominant countries going head to head just like they did in 2009. Yes, Chelsea are currently the English champions and yes Real Madrid are much closer to Barcelona than they were in 2009. But Manchester United look poised to regain their crown and for all the Perez and Mourinho have closed the gap Barcelona still won in the league. Manchester United dumped their closest domestic rivals out in the quarter-finals, Barcelona disposed of theirs in the semi’s.

Unlike the 2009 final Barcelona will go into the tie as firm favourites. Two years ago United were defending their title and they had the Doomsday Option of deploying Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and Berbatov all at the same time. Barcelona had come within seconds of being dumped out by Chelsea who, although unsuccessful, provided the blueprint of how to combat the Catalan Fancy Dans. Moreover Guardiola was missing three quarters of his first choice back line. Pundits were firmly convinced that United could shut Barcelona down in the same way that Chelsea had while hitting their weakened defence on the counter in much the same way as they had disposed of Arsenal in the previous round.

Of course this was not the case. After Eto’o waltzed round Vidic and opened the scoring Ferguson’s side and Michael Carrick in particular wilted in from of a tiki-taka tirade. Instead of allowing Barcelona to weave pretty patterns in the first two thirds and packing the final third to deny space and time on the ball, Ferguson send his men out confident in the belief that they were as good a footballing side as Guardiola’s. The 90 minutes in Rome will have thoroughly disabused him of that notion and it would be a major surprise if Ferguson didn’t attempt to copy the Chelsea/Inter Milan blueprint at Wembley.

The key question for Ferguson is whether he opts for the 4-4-1-1 with Rooney dropping off Javier Hernandez which has been so successful in recent weeks or whether he goes with 4-3-3/4-5-1 with a midfield trio designed to frustrate and choke Barcelona’s play. Hernandez offers wonderful movement which would stretch the Barcelona back line but his inclusion would mean that Rooney would have defensive duties to attend to which he would otherwise be liberated from if played as the focal point of the attack. It seems more likely that Ferguson will opt for a trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Giggs in the middle of the park, flanked by Park and Valencia with Rooney up top.

As for Barcelona, one of the great strengths of this side is that they force opponents to adapt their game or be surgically sliced apart. United will certainly not play Barcelona like they played any opponent thus far in the tournament. For Barcelona the task is much more straightforward. The Catalan club won’t be altering the way it plays. They just have to compensate for a very small squad which has been pushed to the limits of endurance in the El Clasico-fest that has engulfed Spain for the past few weeks. The return of Eric Abidal is a huge boost but only serves to highlight just how paper-thin Barcelona’s strength in depth actually is.

Furthermore the sheer brilliance of Leo Messi, which borders on the freakish at times, is also covering deficiencies in David Villa’s game. The record Spanish striker remains a lethal threat but has only scored once in 14 games and has not offered a huge improvement over Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man he replaced. Off the pitch, Villa fits in much better with the Barcelona squad and aids dressing room harmony but Barcelona fans are becoming increasingly nervous over this goal drought. Messi is playing at a level that is almost incomprehensibly high but as Real Madrid showed, even he is only as good as the service he gets.

If there was one tactical imperative that emerged from the series of games against Real Madrid it is that any side wishing to beat Barcelona must deny Xavi and Iniesta any time on the ball whatsoever. Until Pepe was dismissed for that foul on Dani Alves he had kept Xavi relatively quiet which in turn forced Messi to come foraging deeper in order to get the ball which limited his effectiveness. There were numerous differences in the second leg not least of which was the fact that Barcelona could sit on their two goal lead but the absence of Pepe and the inclusion of Iniesta meant that Madrid weren’t able to choke the game as they had in the first leg.

Overall the pattern of play will most likely focus around the midfield trio of United trying to prevent Xavi and Iniesta playing their natural game while Park will offer some protection against the rampaging Dani Alves on the flank. Barcelona will of course dominate possession and United will sit deep trying to counter at pace when possible.

Prediction: If there is one certainty about this game the it’s that it will determine which side can lay claim to being the most dominant club in Europe in recent history. In 2008 Manchester United beat Barcelona and won the Champions League. In 2009 we saw the reverse. Barcelona have built a legacy but a second victory in three years would certainly cement Manchester United as the biggest European side in the past five years. Overall Barcelona have to be favourites. There is no doubt that this is the greatest side since Sacchi’s Milan in the 1980’s. If they score first United will be in all sorts of trouble as Barcelona will just keep the ball and go for the kill when United commit men forward searching for that equaliser. United have a very good chance. They are not here by chance and they are probably the closest side to Barcelona in Europe. But they are still not as good as the Catalan club. Barcelona to win 2-0

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