The great John Lennon once said, “It’s a fear of the unknown. The unknown is what is.”
May 28th, 2011. The UEFA Champions League final. The unknown demon of FC Barcelona’s fears will manifest itself into human form, codename Little Pea.
As a United fan myself, I am not deluded, Barcelona go to the match as favourites. The best midfield in the world, probably the best strike force in the world, the best player in the world, the second best defence in the world (after United); it makes for harrowing reading.
Yet what really irks me is the wild assertions from fans of teams that are, surprise suprise, not actually in the final, of how United will get “hammered.”
“There’s not even any point turning up,” a particularly bitter Chelsea fan claimed.
I can see their logic. A demolition of the great Real Madrid, of Jose Mourinho, the demi-god and heir apparent for a place at the summit of mount Olympus. Yet if you think about it, the second leg was the fifth El Clasico of the season, such is the totalitarian dominance these two sides exhibit over the rest of their La Liga minions.
Five matches to weigh up the opposition, in a ground you are by now familiar with, against players whose game you have ample opportunity to analyse at close quarters. As opposed to one match in a foreign country, against players who you may play once in a while.
Manchester United vs. Barcelona is a whole different ball game.
Of all the players at United’s disposal, I think it is Javier Hernandez that Barcelona will be most worried about. The man that came out of nowhere to become a revelation. I will make the claim that 90 percent of Barcelona’s players will never have faced Hernandez as a cautious estimate as a few might well have faced him on international duty.
Yet even this was a year ago. Since he arrived at OT and was schooled into the United psyche, Hernandez’s game has blossomed, and he is a different prospect now than he was nine months ago. Video tapes can only teach you so much, especially with a player as unpredictable as Chicharito.
He is the archetypal goal poacher, kicking balls off his own face, heading it in with intentional back-headers. It is basic instinct at it’s most refined level. Hernandez possesses pace in abundance too, with stats at the World Cup citing him as its fastest player.
With the exception of Gerard Pique, who still isn’t as fast as Hernandez, Barcelona’s defence contains a 33-year-old Carles Puyol, who despite still being one of the world’s best defenders with his back to goal. When turned, he no longer has the legs for a footrace with Hernandez.
At right back Barcelona have Dani Alves, a precocious talent, but one inclined to make long forays up the pitch, leaving gaps behind that United’s patented counter-attacking play can exploit.
Finally, in the absence of the brilliant Eric Abidal, after his inspirational victory over the cancer that looked to curtail him (article to come), the defence will quite possibly be completed by Javier Mascherano, a small, slow, defensive midfielder. A player, who despite portraying a great defensive instinct and holding prowess, has an inclination to allow his fiery temperament to influence his play, and as a central defender the stakes are all the higher.
Then there is Hernandez’s movement. In my recollection, I have never seen a player so adept at finding himself in the right place at the right time.
It shows resonance to the play of a young Michael Owen, but in my opinion he was more technical and had worse movement than Hernandez. Chicarito finds space where their shouldn’t be any. His lighting pace, pulls the defenders this way and that, exploiting gaps where he finds them or drawing defenders away, to allow Wayne Rooney or one of the midfielders to fill the void.
Puyol et al will have never faced a player like Hernandez, watched him maybe, but when the whistle sounds, he will become a different proposition. The Rooney, Hernandez double-act, when working effectively, like they were against an admittedly abysmal Schalke in the first leg, are almost unplayable.
Such is the manner in which they complement each other's play. Hernandez pushes and finds the gap, leaving Rooney space to bring out his repertoire and play in a winger or a midfielder or go on himself, where any defensive errors are inevitable punished by the pea green reaper.
Barcelona’s defenders while have to adjust to the unconventional style of Hernandez’s play as the game is going on, but will 90 minutes really be enough?
In my opinion, where the game will be won and lost is in the midfield. Barcelona will inevitably set the tempo, but it is what Manchester United do with the ball when they have it that will be the defining factor in the game.
Sir Alex will, in all likelihood, adopt a defensive formation, at least to start. For this reason, with the premium placed on tracking back to defend, I can see Nani being dropped, with Valencia and Giggs preferred. Park Ji Sung also is a shoe-in to start, such is his stoic stipulation to his defensive duties when the need is at its greatest, probably as a partner to Michael Carrick.
Where, therefore, does this leave Chicharito?
Rooney’s inclusion is inevitable, so, depending on how cautious Sir Alex is, there will, in all likelihood, be another striking birth. Berbatov, a player low on form and panache, for whom his goals earlier in the season seem like a distant memory, or Hernandez, unleashed from the start to tear the weakest part of this impregnable Barcelona unit asunder?
I know who I would choose. Whatever strategy Fergie cooks up though, the brilliant thing about Hernandez, as opposed to, to give an example Berbatov, is that his impact is not diluted by starting from the bench.
In his short time at the Theatre of Dreams, Chicharito has conjured up fond memory’s of another slightly built forward who was plucked from obscurity to weave his mark on super-sub folklore. And we all know how the Champions League final of '99 ended for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
With three weeks to go until the showpiece event, the tension is palpable. Barcelona will enter the match as favourites, justifiable trumpeted as the "best club side in history," yet football has an uncanny knack of delivering a surprise or two.
In my humble opinion, the way that Sir Alex chooses to utilise Javier Hernandez could be key to the destination of the trophy at ninety minutes end.
Barcelona may well win, that I am not arguing with. Just don’t claim that the result is a foregone conclusion.
“It will be as easy as shelling peas for Barcelona,” another friend said. He, like Barcelona, clearly didn’t know too much about the littlest pea of them all.