Manchester United vs. Barcelona.
Two of the world’s best teams will take on each other at the Wembley in a rematch of the 2008-09 final in which Barcelona won 2-0 to mark a new era of domination.
But this time around, Manchester United will definitely come back stronger. In Sir Alex Ferguson, United have one of the world’s best tacticians who knows how to outwit and outsmart his opponents and armed with the knowledge of the mistakes made back in 2009, United will be out to retrieve vengeance.
Heading into the match, Barcelona are favorites but no one can ever write Manchester United off and heading into the match, people have been cautious about Barcelona’s chances knowing that United have the fire power to beat them.
Barcelona are a team that are on the cusp of greatness and a win over the Red Devils will only go further in cementing their places as one of the greatest teams to play the beautiful game. Armed with players like Lionel Messi, David Villa, Carlos Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta to just name a few, Barcelona have some of the best players on the face of the planet.
But Barcelona will need to be at their best to defeat United, who have peaked at the right time and look great having wrapped up another league title, their 19th.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are victims of exhaustion, with the core of their team having been in South Africa, leading Spain to World Cup glory.
But having wrapped up the league title fairly comfortably and with games to spare, Pep Guardiola has been given the luxury of resting some of his key players ahead of this colossal clash.
Barcelona have to be wary of the threat posed by United and their witty manager, Ferguson, and here is a look at the five things that the Catalan giants must do to win their second Champions League crown in three years.
Eric Abidal might have made a recovery from a tumor in his liver, but it is unlikely that he will start in a match of such intensity and it is likely that Guardiola will go with the experienced Carlos Puyol in the left back slot. This means that it will be Javier Mascherano who will partner Gerard Pique at the heart of the Barcelona defense.
Up against them will be United striker Javier Hernandez. With Wayne Rooney dropping deep, it will be Hernandez who plays higher up the pitch for the Red Devils.
After an impressive World Cup, many expected Hernandez to have a positive impact at the club but no one could have braced themselves for the impact and importance he has had at the Red Devils. One of the best signings of the season—easily—Hernandez has delivered when the club has most required and scored an extremely impressive 20 goals this season.
He has been extremely impressive with his pace, which he to latch onto through balls and crosses. His constant movement and running will be tough to handle and he often uses his fantastic movement to wreak havoc among defenses and create all sorts of problems.
While Barcelona would have enjoyed to have Puyol in their centre defense so he could use his vast experience to contain the young Mexican, they will have to settle with Mascherano who has improved as the season has progressed.
Mascherano, while not a traditional centre back, is extremely mobile, agile and equipped with the technique to contain Hernandez. Partnering him at the heart of the defense is Pique, who under the wing of Puyol has slowly progressed into one of the world’s best centre backs and will be facing his former club on Saturday.
The two of them will have their hands full with the Mexican, whose pace and movement can create plenty of spaces. It will be essential that the two of them maintain their concentration throughout the clash and keep tracks of the constant running of Chicharito.
A single slip-up can be costly against a player of his quality and the two of them will have to work together to stick close to Hernandez and not allow him to stretch the defense.
With Eric Abidal not ready, it will be Carlos Puyol who slots into the left back role. Barcelona’s critics often say that the team is incomplete without Lionel Messi but the reality is that Barcelona are a different team without their defensive leader, Carlos Puyol.
Puyol adds leadership and experience to the Barcelona back line and against Manchester United his experience will once again be called into use as La Blaugrana look to defeat the Red Devils once again.
Ever since making his return from injury this season, Antonio Valencia has been on a roll, as he has showed what a class act he is capable of being. He has not shown any kind of long-lasting effect from his dangerous injury and has been on fire, playing at a high tempo and using his searing pace to great effect.
This was evident when Chelsea took on the Red Devils earlier in the month in the title decider. Valencia went on to destroy Ashley Cole, who is widely considered the best left back in the game right now and left United fans wondering how valuable he could have been had he not been injured.
So on May 28th, United are expected to line up with a four-man midfield with Valencia, Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick expected to make the numbers. It will be the experienced Puyol who will be dealing with the explosive Valencia in this match.
Puyol is a fantastic defender and has the quality to keep a tight hold of Valencia. It will be essential that Puyol is successful in keeping control of the winger. United are a team that thrives on the wings and love playing a wide game and giving the freedom for players like Valencia to roam is a recipe for disaster.
Valencia has the brilliant ability to deliver great crosses from the flanks and he manages to do this on a remarkably consistent basis, as he uses his pace to get himself into promising wide positions.
Puyol will have to be at his sharpest to deal with the threat posed by Valencia and does have the quality to come out on top.
But his contributions go further than simply containing the right winger. Puyol’s quality and experience in any position across the pitch means that he adds a certain steel and strength to the back line and as a result, the entire defense is vastly better in his presence than during his absence.
With Javier Hernandez in full flow, we have seen Englishman Wayne Rooney thrive in a deeper role, causing all sorts of trouble and problems with his movement and cross-field balls.
His tendency to drop deep means that it will be Sergio Busquets who will have to stay close to the English striker and prevent him from unleashing his creative skills.
Alex Song demonstrated how to silence Rooney in Arsenal’s triumph over United, as the Cameroonian defensive-midfield player shackled Rooney effectively and kept him silent for the whole match.
Rooney tends to drop deep and then launches superb cross-field balls to players in wider positions. This allows the Red Devils to interchange positions seamlessly and helps them to open up pockets of space in the opposition’s defense.
The key to minimizing the impact of Rooney lies in sticking close to him and preventing him from having time on the ball. Busquets must stay tight against the United man throughout in order to nullify the threat posed by Rooney. Busquets should look to limit Rooney’s time on the ball and force him into rushing, thus limiting Rooney’s creative ability.
Rooney’s cross-field balls help in getting the other players into promising situations and by limiting the impact of Rooney, Busquets reduces the potency of the entire United attack.
After the two El Clasicos in the Champions League semifinals, there has been an obvious shift in the perception of Barcelona with may people starting to see them as cheats rather than the great players they are. There are a lot of incidents that forced people to rethink their opinion on Barcelona, most notably the playacting incidents with Pedro, Dani Alves and Busquets.
There were many notable incidents of controversy in the match including when Busquets was accused of throwing a racial slur at Marcelo.
We have to realize the referees are only humans. They will be swayed by all the talk and they too will now keep a closer watch on Barcelona. While diving is largely present in the game, if caught, the player will be handed a yellow card.
Busquets is known for his tendency to dive around and the match against Real Madrid showed that if the occasion be large, even the best players will be drawn into controversy. Few occasions can get bigger than the Champions League final.
The referees will be closely scrutinizing every Barcelona player and with the referees under severe pressure of late, they will be closely watching the players. Fresh in their minds will be the incidents in the semis and Barcelona should ensure that the players are not drawn into controversy and risk getting sent off.
By getting sent off against a team of United’s caliber, they are risking the Champions League and so it is vital that Barcelona’s players—especially Busquets, Mascherano and Alves—maintain their composure.
Manchester United’s coach, Ferguson is tactically a very tough man to beat. He is the kind of coach who learns to adapt and with such a vast and successful career, he has mastered the art of finding a solution to the threat posed by various players over the years.
In the 2009 match, Barcelona totally outplayed the Red Devils. But Ferguson would have learnt from his mistakes.
United are a side that can make the transition from attack to defense in a flash. Blessed with quick players, they are a real threat to be reckoned with on the counterattack.
Against Arsenal, who employ a similar attacking style of play with emphasis on possession like Barcelona, United have had plenty of success in recent years as they have used the counterattack to great effect. United will prefer to soak up the pressure and then look to score on the counter. While Arsenal’s attack lacks the threat of Barcelona, United can still employ a similar tactic.
Blessed with some great defenders in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, United have the defensive solidity to withstand Barcelona’s star-studded attack.
But Barcelona must continue probing and there is no doubt that they can find a route through to the United goal. United are capable of holding out for long spells of time but eventually, they might get frustrated and could give Barcelona the opening they require. Barcelona need to maintain their composure and should continue their style of play; then they can expose the Red Devils once again.
The right back role is a weakness for United and the Catalan giants should look to target this area in order to find a way through. United are often praised for their defensive might but even they can be broken down by using the passing game, like Arsenal showed in their recent triumph over the Red Devils.
Barcelona must retain the belief in their own strengths and if they play to their strengths, they can find a way past United’s defense.