2011 UEFA Champions League Final: 10 Key Questions
It is perhaps poetic that the Champions League Final takes place at Wembley for the first time since 1992. The two teams competing for the championship are returning to the scene of their inaugural victory in the competition.
In 1968 and 1992, respectively, Manchester United and Barcelona won their first European Cups at the home of English football. This fact is just one of many things linking these two finalists.
More pertinent is the fact that they contested the trophy two years ago in Rome. On that night the Catalans dispatching the Red Devils with relative comfort in a 2-0 win.
Now they meet again in club football's grandest occasion. Barcelona is seeking to validate their place as one of the elite teams in the sport's history while United is looking to herald the beginning of a new dynasty.
As Josep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson prepare their sides, just what are the key questions surrounding these great managers and their teams ahead of their meeting?
1. Is Darren Fletcher the Difference Maker for United?
Darren Fletcher was certainly valued by Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2009, but there is no denying his stock has gone up since then. The Scottish midfielder has been recognised by his manager as one of his most reliable big-match players.
A big reason why Fletcher's stock has risen so high was the detrimental effect his absence had on Manchester United in the Champions League final that year. He missed the match after having been sent-off with a red card in the semifinal versus Arsenal.
United lacked a midfield presence capable of restricting the creative Barcelona fulcrum of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. United's central midfield of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Anderson were out-passed by the Spanish-speaking maestros opposite them and had difficulty doing anything about it.
In hindsight it is easy to speculate whether Fletcher would have helped. Chances are he too might have struggled in the face of such a captivating display.
Fletcher has the stamina, tenacity and aggression that could ensure a tiring night for Barca's creative players. He has the ability to, if not stop Barcelona entirely, at least prevent them from dominating the match.
2. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Messi?
One player Darren Fletcher might be utilised in trying to stop is Lionel Messi.
Whether it is Fletcher doing a man-marking job or not, finding a way to lessen the Argentinian sensation's impact will be at the forefront of Sir Alex Ferguson's gameplan.
Despite any opponent's best effort to negate Barca's attacking threat overall, Messi proved once more in the semi-final with Real Madrid his ability to summon something out of nothing. The significance of this contribution cannot be understated in tense and tight affairs like that first-leg game.
United will ponder man-marking him but that means sacrificing a player perhaps better used in dealing with the considerable threats posed elsewhere by Barca.
Messi of course is not perfect. In six previous visits to England he has failed to score; Barcelona won just one of those games against Liverpool in 2007. It might simply amount to him having some rare off-days, or perhaps a closer look by Ferguson and his staff will find some insight on how to neutralise this most dangerous of threats.
3. Will United Be Brave Enough to Take the Game to Barca?
Twice over the past two seasons Jose Mourinho faced Barcelona in Champions League semi-final contests. Tribute should most definitely be paid for the way his Inter Milan side beat their shell-shocked Barca opponents 3-1 in their first-leg meeting last season, but overall the emphasis from Mourinho was on defence.
It worked in 2010. The Nerazzurri held out in the Nou Camp to secure their path to the final. This season with Real Madrid, it did not. Whatever the reasoning for the respective success and failure of each match, whether you thought they were smart pragmatic game-plans by Mourinho or a stubborn salute to negativity, you can understand why the Portuguese did it.
Barcelona have the ability to overwhelm teams when they attack and, just as crucially, are equally proficient in getting the ball back to try again. You can plan to attack them, but at the very best there is a good chance the most you might enjoy is a glorious failure on the counterattack.
Opting to get as many men behind the ball as you can and, as Mourinho himself once said, "parking the bus", is just as risky. Should you concede it is a considerable task to chance strategy and attack, especially against such a quality team.
Ferguson is not so daft to believe that going gung-ho at Wembley will work, but knowing what we do about United it is hard to see them not attempting to go after Barcelona. For a manager as confident as the Scotsman it would not be surprising to find that he thinks the Catalans have had it relatively easy and that his team are the ones to really give them something to think about.
4. Where Is the Weak Link in the Barcelona Defence?
Pep Guardiola is certainly a believer in attack being the best form of defence; it is a principal that has certainly been applied to his Barcelona team. Of course it easy to say that when you are blessed with a pretty strong backline, notably consisting of one of the world's best central defensive partnerships in Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué.
Should United find a way to get Barca on the back-foot, they will find a pretty formidable wall to break through in the form of the Spanish World Cup winning pair (ably supported by Sergio Busquets in front).
Their best route through may be on the wings where Barcelona's full-backs will, as always, look to get forward and involve themselves in their side's attacks. It is easier said than done, but Antonio Valencia and probably either Nani or Ji-Sung Park on both flanks will look to expose this empty space on the counter-attack.
With Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov to contend with also, the Barca defence risks being stretched here if they are caught in possession with too many players forward.
5. How Does Barcelona Break Down the Manchester United Defence?
Barcelona also faces a sizable task in breaking down the Manchester United defence.
Like their opponents, United are blessed with one of European football's strongest defences. Perhaps the relatively inexperienced Fabio might offer a point of attack for Barca, but the best way through for them may be sticking to what they do best.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will not be easily caught out. But the movement and fluidity in passing of the Barca front three of Messi, Pedro and David Villa will mean they need to constantly stay alert to their positioning.
With the quality of service coming Xavi and Hernandez they will likely not lack opportunities to get at United and will hope at some point to force them out of position or at least force a rash tackle.
6. Who Are the Game Changers Coming off the Bench?
Either through both teams cancelling each other out or one of them needing to get back into the game, at some point Guardiola and/or Ferguson will look to their substitutes in need of a contribution.
Games like these are capable of throwing up unlikely heroes, but both sides have established talents to call from if such a need arises.
Ibrahim Afellay came on for Barcelona in the semi-final first-leg against Real Madrid and provided the run and cross that set up Messi's first goal. The latter's second goal somewhat overshadowed this moment, but it was a huge turning point on what, until then, had been a very tight game.
Seydou Keita and Bojan Krkic are both go-to guys Barca have called on numerous occasions before and both have goals in them.
United's Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov are also important bench contributors. Owen is no longer the force he once was, but he remains a potent goalscoring threat. While Berbatov has struggled for goals in the Champions League, few players are capable of conjuring up a piece of magic quite like the maverick Bulgarian.
Then there is Paul Scholes. The final might well be the United veteran's last game before retirement. Should this be the case he will be desperate to play some part.
7. How Will Javier Hernández Respond in Such a Big Game?
Javier Hernández has been one of the stars of Manchester United's season.
Baffling defenders with his movement and blessed with the finishing ability to capitalise on his great positioning, the Mexican known as 'Chicharito' has played his way onto the first-team with a run of great performances.
It is a fine achievement for his first season in the Premier League, with several other talented foreign players taking a lot longer (and in some cases, never) to settle into a new environment both on and off the pitch.
The Champions League final offers the most difficult test of his short United career so far. Ferguson will be wary in placing too much expectation on the shoulder of his young striker, but the Scotsman knows his opponents will offer a true evaluation of how far Hernández has come so far.
8. Which Team Will Best Keep Their Cool?
Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano and Dani Alves on one side versus Wayne Rooney, Nani and Fabio on the other.
These players are some of the more volatile, and lets be frank, renowned actors that will be on display at Wembley.
Nobody will be wishing for the distasteful scenes that plagued the semi-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid, but at some point there will inevitably be an errant kick, dive or overreaction that adds to what will already be a tense occasion.
If either side are drawn into such incidents it will not lose them the game, but an unnecessary provocation or dismissal would hurt their chances.
9. How Have United Recovered from Rome?
It would be foolish to place too much weight on a game from two years ago. But there is no doubting the knock to the collective ego taken by Manchester United in their 2-0 final loss to Barcelona in Rome.
Sir Alex Ferguson will have thought long and hard about what went wrong that night, and what they can do differently to avoid that this time around. He will also be aware that Pep Guardiola offers a formidable tactical opponent, one he will not take lightly.
In the weeks leading up to this final Ferguson will have been judging the mindset of his team. Whether they're hesitant towards facing arguably the world's best team, or comprehensive in their willingness not to be beaten again, both moods need managing in compliance with his gameplan for the night.
10. Which Team Has Most Left to Give?
Both Barcelona and Manchester United will be keen to finish, what for each side has been an enjoyable and successful campaign, on one final high note.
However both physically and mentally each team has already been through a lot. Barca have steadily relied on a core group of players who's vigorous and comprehensive application to their style of football will have taken quite a toll. Of course, there is also the high of dispatching rivals Real Madrid in the semi-finals of this competition, a high not easily matched.
Man United have fought to once more overtake Chelsea in the Premier League, battling to a well-deserved title while dealing with off-the-field issues for lesser teams may have threatened to overtake them.
These are not excuses for either of these two. Just reminders that when such great teams face off, it might just came down to who has that little bit more left to give at the end of memorable, but exhausting years.