Champions League Final Preview: Barcelona vs Manchester United

Marco ConsoliContributor IMay 23, 2011

Champions League Final Preview: Barcelona vs Manchester United

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    This year's Champions League final will feature the top two sides from England and Spain, in a one-game, winner-take-all final set to be played in Wembley Stadium on May 28.

    The two teams involved include the world's best player in Lionel Messi as well as one of the greatest managers in the history of the sport in Sir Alex Ferguson. Manchester and Barcelona have been Europe's best performing and most consistent teams, both domestically and continentally. Both teams are set to win their domestic leagues, but only one of them will be winning multiple trophies and titles this year.

    The final will be a repeat of the 2009 final, where Barcelona were 2-0 winners in Rome thanks to goals from Messi and Eto'o. Both sides featured a star-studded lineup, with the the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez lining up for Manchester and Messi, Eto'o, Xavi, Henry and Iniesta featuring for Barcelona.

    This year, however, Hernandez and Nani have replaced the departed Ronaldo and Tevez for Manchester and Pedro and David Villa have replaced the departed Eto'o and Henry for Barcelona.

    Since the 2009 final, the world has witnessed the gradual evolution of Lionel Messi as a player, increasingly realising his true potential and setting himself apart and above every other player in the world today.

    Manchester, in retrospect, has seen its No. 1 star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, leave for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009. Their other influential forward, Carlos Tevez, has also been missed, but in-form striker Javier Hernandez is a player quickly becoming a household name and bonafide star, seemingly allowing the Manchester fans to accept and forget the Tevez departure.

    This past weekend saw Manchester United overtake Liverpool's 18 league titles with their 19th, cementing their place as the most successful club in the English Premier League. Barcelona, too, has secured the Spanish La Liga title, winning their third consecutive title.

    The champions of England and Spain will meet in the Champions League final and we will look at several factors in determining the likely winner of the two.

Manager vs. Manager

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    Both these managers are highly acclaimed and respected among the players and footballing fans. And undoubtedly, they will have their teams fired up and in peak condition to perform in the May 28 final.

    Sir Alex Ferguson has guided Man United to 12 Premier League titles beginning in 1992, which also includes a record-breaking Treble season in 1998-1999 where Manchester won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

    Ferguson is known to implement the mentality that no player is greater than the team but every player has an important role as part of a whole; he's able to get the absolute most out of his players.

    Josep "Pep" Guardiola has been the manager of Barcelona FC for a mere three years, but has impressively guided his team to the league title in every one of those years. In his debut season as a manager, Guardiola was able to incredibly win the Treble with Barcelona, winning the league, Copa Del Rey and Champions League title.

    Pep Guardiola has more success in his first few years as a manager than any other manager in history. He has won more titles in three seasons than some managers have in over 10 seasons of being employed. The brilliant start to his career deserves much respect and attention; however, when comparing him to Ferguson, experience plays a crucial and pivotal role in deciding who of the two has the advantage.

    Decision

    Simply put, Ferguson's experience and time at the Manchester helm, along with his proven ability to plan and execute a usually bulletproof strategy, give him the slight advantage over Guardiola.

    The Edge: Manchester, Sir Alex Ferguson

Goalkeeping

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    Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar holds a number of impressive records and stats that include: the first goalkeeper to have reached 50 clean sheets in the UEFA Champions League; the most capped player for the Netherlands national team; and the oldest player to have ever reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions league as well as to have won the Premier League title at 40 years of age.

    Van der Sar continues to play at a very high level and can always be counted on to make the big save when required. His reflexes have thus far withstood the test of time and his overall positioning and command of his box is still among the world's elite.

    Victor Valdes, in comparison, is the most successful goalkeeper in Barcelona's history. He has won five La Liga titles, two Champions League titles, as well as a Copa Del Rey.

    Now, despite the numerous accolades and accomplishments, Valdes has often been criticized for frequently making crucial mistakes as a result of his vulnerable decision-making skills and apparent lack of concentration. The media has speculated on numerous occasions where he'd be if he wasn't playing for a dynasty such as Barcelona.

    Decision

    Van der Sar gets the nod here because of his consistency and ability to remain focused throughout a game.

    Advantage: Manchester United, Edwin van der Sar

Defense

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    When healthy, the central partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand forms the strongest backbone defense in Europe. Vidic and Ferdinand have helped keep the goals conceded at a paltry four throughout the entire Champions League tournament, including eight clean sheets.

    Add to the central pairing the experienced Patrice Evra at left back, and you have a defense with strength, size, experience, tactical discipline, as well as shrewd man-marking and tough tackling.

    Barcelona, on the other hand, have an uncanny ability to score goals and put on a fantastic display of attacking/possession football. However, their attacking style makes them susceptible to counterattacks from the opposition and they do give up a fair amount of goals. They have given up seven goals in the Champions League, a small amount considering the amount of games played, but still almost double that of United.

    When healthy, Barcelona has arguably the best centre back in the world in World Cup winner Carles Puyol. Also, they have the best attacking right back in the world in Brazilian star Dani Alves. Individually, these two are brilliant and monumental figures whenever they play for both club and country.

    Question marks have been justifiably raised though in regards to the consistency of Puyol's central partner, Gerard Pique, as he has been known to make costly errors in important games.

    Decision

    For all Barcelona's attacking prowess, the numbers don't lie. And those numbers indicate eight clean sheets in 12 Champions League appearances for United. Now, Manchester have yet to come up against a team with Barcelona's goalscoring abilities; but Barcelona have yet to face a defense as strong as United's.

    Advantage: Manchester United, Vidic and Ferdinand

Midfield

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    Featuring two of the best players in the world—voted second and third behind Messi for this year's Player of the Year—Andres Iniesta and Xavi make up the engine for the Barcelona machine. Both players possess supernatural gifts, enabling them to create masterclass plays and setups as well as executing high-level, demanding strategies.

    Xavi and Iniesta have been playing together on Barcelona for over eight seasons and with Spain for five seasons. The two players implement different skills in their gameplay, complementing each other's style: Xavi is by far the best distributor of the ball in the game today, whereas Iniesta is a highly proficient dribbler and is always taking on defenders.

    The result of the combination is a highly efficient passing and possession game that makes it extremely difficult for teams to break down without committing fouls.

    United, in contrast, possess excellent holding midfielders in Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes/Darren Fletcher. These players play deep in their half of the field, supporting their defenders and using their wingers when counterattacking.

    Manchester does possess fast and strong wingers, who have the ability to capitalize on the counter in Antonio Valencia, Nani and Park Ji-Sung. Park and Valencia in particular are currently in very good form; Ferguson often utilizes Park for Champions League games and is often rewarded with a brilliant performance.  

    Decision

    Xavi and Iniesta have the ability to break down any opposition's defense and midfield. Barca also have Messi and Pedro playing more as wingers than as full-out forwards, as they support the midfield very well and help create and buildup play. United will struggle to shut down Barca's midfield juggernaut without getting into foul/card trouble.

    Advantage: Barcelona, Iniesta and Xavi

Forwards

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    The trio of Messi, Pedro and David Villa have scored a combined 95 goals for FC Barcelona in all competitions this year. What perhaps is even more impressive than the number of goals they have scored is the way they go about producing these goals.

    Their buildup and beautiful link-up play with the midfield is an absolute joy to watch for any fan of attacking-style soccer. The quick and dynamic one-touch pass-and-go movement from these players creates a highly attractive and aesthetic display for the fans while providing numerous scoring chances for the team

    The point of the Barcelona attacking spear is without a doubt Leo Messi—the best player in the world today. Messi has been on an absolute goal-scoring tear throughout the season, scoring over 50 goals and silencing Ronaldo supporters in regards to who the best player in the world is.

    The brilliance of Messi has largely overshadowed teammate performances this season, as Villa and Pedro have quietly gone about their business, scoring their share of goals and contributing to the excellent Barcelona campaign.

    What has gone largely unmentioned is the fact that David Villa has now scored 20 or more goals in all competitions in every season dating back to 2001/2002 with four different teams; he is and has been a consistent goal-scoring machine. And although he has been quiet as of late—going through a dry spell that lasted 11 games without a goal (Feb-Apr)—Villa is known to turn it up in the big games, scoring important goals in crucial games in the past.

    Manchester United are grateful for the somewhat unexpected start Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez has had in his first full season with the club, scoring several important goals that include game winners against Valencia and Marseille in Champions League.

    The "once prodigal son" Wayne Rooney has returned to top form after a tumultuous start to the season that saw him benched and demanding a trade. Since then, Rooney is back at doing what he does best: running at defenders, fighting for the ball, setting up plays and distributing the ball well and intelligently. His audacious bicycle-kick goal against Manchester City back in February is a sure contender for goal of the year, appearing on highlight reels worldwide and re-establishing himself as one of the best players in the world.

    Decision

    Barcelona take this category as a result of an overall technical superiority and ability over Manchester. They just have overwhelming firepower up front and play a possession game that makes it extremely difficult for the opposition to close down.

    Advantage: Barcelona, Messi and Villa

Form

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    In a recent interview, when asked about his thoughts about the Champions League final, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger replied by saying that he thought Barcelona are currently ripe for the picking.

    "There will never be a better moment to face them," he said, tipping Manchester United for tournament glory. He went on to comment on how Barcelona had looked exhausted and "sluggish" in their past few games while Manchester in contrast look sharp and hungry.

    Wenger believes that Barcelona's attractive yet predictable one-touch passing game will not surprise Manchester, as they will be expecting it from the Spanish champions. Manchester, though, have what he states to be an advantage because of the fact that they are less predictable and no one really knows how they will approach the game on May 28.

    I agree with most of what Arsene said; Manchester is currently in prime form indicated by the fact that they beat rivals Chelsea three times in just over a month, beating the second-placed Premier League team twice in the Champions League semifinals.

Prediction

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    The current Manchester United squad does not have the individual talent it had two years ago when they last featured in a Champions League final. Since Ronaldo and Tevez have departed, Ferguson has built a unit that doesn't rely as much on the performance of one player but instead has built a stronger team unit with excellent chemistry.

    Manchester will attempt to stifle the Barcelona midfield with a probable five-man midfield setup and likely play a counterattacking game, which they have proven to use in lethal effect.

    The 2011 Barcelona team has seen the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, reach his prime. Messi has delivered grand performances against top teams throughout the year, and again will be relied upon to spearhead the Barcelona attack on May 28.

    The rest of the Barcelona team has also been in outstanding form throughout the season, as the core players of Iniesta, Xavi, Pique and Puyol (when healthy) look to be unbeatable. Relatively new players such as Pedro and Villa have been excellent contributors as well.

    Prediction

    The first goal of the game will prove to be crucial in dictating the balance of the game, as is usually the case. If Manchester are able to score first, they can very likely exploit the Barcelona attacking game and catch them on the counter. If Barcelona are able to score first, then Manchester's counterattacking game will have to be discarded in place of a more direct approach.

    Barcelona has too much firepower and too many weapons to choose from. Manchester will try to shut down the Barca midfield engine, but as a result of tight marking and tough tackles, they will almost certainly get into foul trouble with the referee. The first goal will be pivotal; but again, I favour Barca as the team that could win from being a goal up or a goal down.

    FC BARCELONA 2, MANCHESTER UNITED 1

    FC BARCELONA 2011 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE WINNERS