Will history repeat itself for Lionel Messi and Barcelona against Manchester United?
A week ago what was once inevitable is now unavoidable—Barcelona will face Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final.
Let that sink in, then wipe the saliva off your keyboard.
It’s an absolutely fitting tie, considering Barcelona have been the overwhelming class of La Liga and Manchester United have been the superior side in the English Premiere League. The two best teams in the best two leagues in Europe. You couldn’t draw it up any better, right?
This should look familiar. A few of the faces have changed, the kits may look slightly different, Alex Ferguson’s face might be a bit redder and Pep Guardiola may even don a sharper suit. These two teams met in the Champions League final just two years ago, with Barcelona winning 2-0 in Rome behind goals from Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi.
This year’s final will be a tad bit closer to home on May 28 at historic Wembley Stadium, where a good portion of United’s English contingent have played games for the Three Lions where the stakes are just as high.
Will home-field advantage be a factor against a Barcelona side that most already consider the favourites? Probably not.
Why? Because Barcelona’s going to win.
It’s been a damn fine three-year span for Spanish football.
Spain has always been a side branded as being perennially talented and perennially underachievers on the world’s biggest stage.
In 2008, Spain finally experienced a breakthrough, winning Euro 2008—a competition that is considered by most to be tougher to conquer than the World Cup. In 2009, Barcelona won the Champions League with a team laden with members of the Spanish national team.
Of course, this summer in South Africa, Spain won the biggest sporting event in the world (sorry, Olympics) when La Furia Roja defeated Holland to win their first ever World Cup.
Now consider this: On that World Cup-winning team, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and David Villa were all part of Spain’s starting XI in the final. Coincidentally, each of them play pivotal roles on Barcelona’s current side.
The core of that group has been training together for the better part of the past three years. Why do you think their tiki-taka possession-heavy passing game is so cohesive and seamless (or infuriating for their opponents)?
These guys have done nothing but win since 2008—why would that change now?
You can’t fault Manchester United for the path they took to the finals.
But it doesn’t mean we won’t favor Barcelona partially for that very reason.
Sure, United looked very, very impressive in dispatching fierce domestic rival Chelsea in the quarterfinals, but Barcelona looked just as impressive throughout the tournament in taking down a pesky Arsenal squad and their bitter rivals in Madrid.
Marseille is challenging Lille for the Ligue 1 title in France, but Ligue 1 hasn’t been as competitive compared to Spain or England in recent years. Schalke enjoyed an extremely impressive run to the semifinals, especially in knocking off cup-holders Inter comprehensively. But Schalke are still only in 10th place in the German Bundesliga with a -3 goal differential.
But aside from the Chelsea clash, United have faced a relatively effortless run to the finals.
Does resistance training really make that big of a deal? We’ll find out. But in the interim, we’ll give the Catalan giants the nod for the gauntlet they’ve already been through.
And yet, they’re still on track to pull off a famous double by winning the Premier League and the Champions League.
But this isn’t the same Manchester United side that made it to the Champions League final in 2009, nor is it the same team that won the competition in 2008.
Wayne Rooney has regained his form that had wavered early in the season coming off of the World Cup. And Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) has proved to be a more than capable partner for Rooney up top.
But Rooney is not the playmaker Lionel Messi is. And Chicharito is neither the playmaker David Villa nor Pedro is.
This, oddly, may have been one of United’s most impressive seasons in recent memory. As a typical Sir Alex Ferguson-coached team always does, they’ve been resilient and found new ways to win as they’ve coped with the losses of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in recent years.
That said, some still speculate that this was just an overall down year in the EPL. Chelsea started hot then collapsed only to recover just in time to make a late title chase. As supremely talented as Arsenal are, they have hardly showed any championship mettle in dropping winnable game after winnable game. And both of these teams topped United the last time they met.
Even Liverpool, for as disastrous of a season they’ve had, comprehensively beat down United 3-1 at Anfield.
Simply put: This isn’t the same Manchester United squad that used to strike fear into any team that faced them on the pitch.
There is only one Lionel Messi.
Manchester United and English fans used to shower those exact words upon David Beckham. Unfortunately, United no longer boast a player remotely close to Messi’s caliber.
Not. Even. Close.
Wayne Rooney has enjoyed a spectacular campaign and treated United fans to one of the goals of the year, Portuguese winger Nani has experienced a breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford, and Nemaja Vidic continues to cement himself as one of the best defenders in the world.
But no one else has that other-worldly, I’m-going-to-dribble-past-five-dudes ability that the diminutive Argentine has. At any time, Messi is at risk to take the ball and make something out of absolutely nothing and change the course of a match.
The best-player-in-the-world debate typically beings with Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi and ends with Messi.
And his dazzling two-goal performance in the first leg of Barcelona’s semifinal UEFA Champions League tilt against Ronaldo’s Madrid side reminded us again that, despite Ronaldo being a more of a physical specimen than Messi, Messi is the game-changer Ronaldo is not (or that he at least hasn’t showed us yet).
Oh, and he also scored the game-clincher in brilliant fashion the last time these teams met in the finals.
Real Madrid may go home this season holding only the Copa del Rey while United still have the opportunity to both capture (and likely will) their domestic league along with the opportunity to win Europe’s greatest prize.
But Madrid are still a better side than Manchester United.
Barcelona just underwent and survived a grueling, taxing 18-day stretch where they faced their bitter, hated rivals Real Madrid an unprecedented four times. There was fighting, bickering, diving and media accusations.
Somewhere in between, two excruciatingly talented sides played football. And Barcelona emerged unscathed and, if nothing else, the drive to beat United just has intensified to shove it down their Spanish rivals throats.
Even in victory, Barcelona were accused of diving in both legs, and even in a convincing victory, still dogged by accusations from Madrid players.
Typically, emerging from such a heated, competitive clash would lead to the potential for a hangover in the next round. Thanks to Mourinho, Ronaldo and Co., that shouldn’t be a problem.