Across the Pond: Predicting the Champions League Final
Across the Pond is a series that offers this Yank's take on major events in sports from Europe and the rest of the world. For the last installment, click here.
In the immediate wake of the Champions League semifinals, plenty of football fans were predicting an easy victory in the final for Manchester United.
United had just dominated Arsenal over two legs, easily dispatching their rivals and booking a place in Rome.
Don't expect United to look for an easy matchup, though. They met Barcelona in last year's competition, and know what it takes to defeat the Catalans. They won't be overconfident, but they will believe they can defend their title.
Barcelona's spot in the final was reserved through an exercise in contrast. After battling to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their tie against Chelsea, it took an extra-time goal from a 10-man Barcelona side to advance to the final.
It's fair to say that Barcelona should feel quite fortunate to have a spot in Wednesday's match.
Don't expect Barcelona to simply act happy to be there, though. We're in for a great match between Europe's finest clubs.
Why this will be a great match
A Barcelona-Man U match features a lot of interesting subplots. I'm (technically) a neutral fan, so these will keep me interested:
- Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi, for the unofficial title of greatest player in the world.
- Thierry Henry vs. a familiar enemy. Lots of Gunners will be pulling for Henry to take home a winner's medal.
- Each club is missing an important piece thanks to an undeserved red card in the semifinals. Will the losses of Darren Fletcher and Eric Abidal cancel each other out?
These two clubs have been the best in Europe all season. Each team could legitimately claim to be the best team in the best league in Europe. Now we get to definitively see which club is superior.
Why Manchester United will win
The Red Devils might just have the strength in their back four to keep Barcelona's offense at bay. Nemanja Vidic was arguably the best defender in the Premier League for 2008-09, and only Chelsea conceded fewer goals (22) than Man U's 24. There isn't a single defensive unit in La Liga that can match that sort of quality.
Patrice Evra also has the pace and skill to bother Barcelona's wingers. Evra has already successfully shut down Leo Messi on one occasion.
Much like their opponents, Manchester United are also quite dangerous offensively. They had the second-best offense in the Premier League, scoring 67 goals. Granted, that number isn't as impressive as Barcelona's 104 strikes, but Premier League opponents tend to play a more defensive style.
Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 26 goals in all competitions this season, making him just as dangerous as any member of Barcelona's big three. Containing him is much easier said than done, and nobody should be surprised if Ronaldo leads United to victory.
Why they won't
United's dominance in the Premier League hasn't translated to the Champions League. Man U only scored two victories in the group stage: a pair of 3-0 wins over Celtic and Danish minnows Aalborg.
In the knockout rounds, United was very nearly stunned by FC Porto, the very heavy underdogs. Porto scored twice at Old Trafford, and were a Cristiano Ronaldo strike away from pulling the upset.
This should tell you that Manchester United is vulnerable heading into the final. All it takes is a single defensive lapse for them to be forced to play from behind. A defensive lapse of the sort that we saw against Porto.
Struggles in the back are a definite possibility for United. Rio Ferdinand is struggling to get fit, and John O'Shea is expected to fill in somewhere in the back. Without a full-strength back line, Man U may find it difficult to contain all of Barcelona's offensive threats.
Why Barcelona will win
Simply put, Barcelona has the best offense in Europe. As of this writing, Barca has two matches remaining in La Liga, and they've already scored 104 goals domestically. That number is coupled with a stout defense that has only conceded goals 33 times.
Yes, the Catalans have amassed a huge goal differential. They've scored 71 more times in La Liga than their opponents.
The trio of Samuel Eto'o, Messi and Henry are responsible for 71 of those 104 goals. Henry missed out on the semifinals, but he should be available for the final, giving Barcelona a very formidable offensive trio to run the attack.
Alex Ferguson has heaped praise on former Manchester United player Gerard Pique, who is now turning out in the Barcelona squad. Though only 22, he has become an elite defender who is quite familiar with the offensive threat that is Manchester United. This knowledge could end up being very beneficial to Barcelona.
Why they won't
Containing Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney will be a tall order for a defense that is missing some key players. Dani Alves, Eric Abidal and Rafa Marquez will all be absent for the final, placing a lot of pressure on Carles Puyol and Pique.
This makeshift defensive unit could force the midfield to assume a more defensive role than they are normally used to doing. This will disrupt the attack and lead to the creation of fewer chances than normal for Barcelona. In essence, a defense at less than full strength will hurt the offense as well.
As great as Barcelona's offense has been, they haven't coped well with the other English back line they have faced in the competition. Chelsea held Barcelona at bay for over 180 minutes, when Barcelona was able to score seemingly at will against other opposition.
Stop waffling and make a prediction already!
Which team will be able to dictate tempo and style on Wednesday?
Who will better cope with absent players?
As much as it pains me to say it, Manchester United is closer to full strength, and that will make the difference. Barcelona will give a valiant effort but fall just short. I look for a fast-paced game with a lot of chances, to be tied 2-2 after 90 minutes of play.
Prediction: Manchester United 3-2 Barcelona (aet)
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