Barcelona vs. Manchester United: Complete Champions League Final Preview: Part 1
As you all know, the biggest game of the season will be played on Saturday. After a long, hard season where both teams excelled, Barcelona and Manchester United will battle it out for the European title.
And who better to do an extensive preview of the game than yours truly and Manchester United supporter, and B/R renowned Featured Columnist, Yoosof Farah.
Yoosof and I decided to join forces to make what is indisputably (really, there's no point arguing) the best final preview on the internet. There are 22 questions that cover pretty much everything (the 2009 final, path to the final this year, how both teams have evolved, tactical analysis, key matchups...you name it and it's there).
We hope you enjoy it. Don't forget to read Part Two as well.
1. Is This the Final You Had Predicted in the Beginning of the Season?
Well, I’d be lying if I said I was sure that these two teams would meet in the final, but I definitely saw a repeat of the 2009 final as a possibility and it’s not difficult to understand why.
These are arguably the two strongest teams in Europe at the moment and they’ve been dominant both in their countries and in the European scene for quite a while. It was therefore very conceivable that Barcelona and Manchester United could meet again in the final.
From the outset, I don't think there was any doubt FC Barcelona would be making the final; Hercules game aside, they started the season again at such a high standard.
The only question was about who would join them in the Champions League final. Would it be Real Madrid, who looked like a much-improved team under Jose Mourinho? Or it would be Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti's high-flying Blues who were continuing in much the same vein as their Premier League and FA Cup-winning season previously?
At the start of the season, not many really had high hopes for Manchester United—myself included.
2. Did These Teams Deserve To Reach the Final?
No. Barcelona got here because of referees, cheating, diving, UEFA, UNICEF, Villarato, doping, wikileaks…you name it.
United, on the other hand, got here because of luck, Horward Webb (he doesn’t really officiate United’s Champions League matches, but United would have been relegated long ago without him, therefore not eligible to participate in the Champions League) and Fergie time. Or at least this is the common belief among Mourinho, the Madrid media and the fans of Manchester United’s domestic rivals.
On a serious note, of course they both deserve to be in the final. They easily won their groups and barely broke a sweat in the knockout stages, while also winning their domestic leagues. It’s hard to argue that Barcelona and Manchester United don't deserve to battle it out for the European title.
Definitely. Barcelona did of course, especially after overcoming the negative tactics of Real Madrid and completely annihilating Arsenal and Shaktar Donetsk, which is very much a task easier said than done.
As for Manchester United, Marseille, a below-par Chelsea and an even worse Schalke 04 weren't exactly the hardest of opponents on the road to Wembley; but nonetheless, they beat everything that challenged them—in particular Schalke, who they destroyed. Therefore, they too deserve their place in the final at the home of football.
3. Who Had the Easiest Path to the Final?
I’d have to say Manchester United.
Barcelona’s path wasn’t easy at all; they made it easy with sublime Lionel Messi-inspired performances. Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid are both great teams (especially the latter), but they were both pretty much out after the first leg. In the first round, Arsenal did cause some trouble by winning the first leg at the Emirates, but the second leg turned out to be arguably the most one-sided match in Champions League history.
Manchester United was a lot luckier in the draws as far as I’m concerned. Marseille and Schalke aren’t exactly world-beating teams and Manchester United had no trouble getting past them.
However, they can only beat what’s put in front of them and they were clearly superior in all the ties leading to the final, thus justifying their presence in Wembley.
Manchester United did, definitely. Unlike Barca, the teams they played weren't in great form at the time and had less world-class ball players in their sides.
4. Do Mourinho's Claims of a Pro-Barcelona Conspiracy Hold Any Water?
Of course not. They are just the excuses of a very sore loser and shouldn’t be taken seriously in any way.
Barcelona eliminated Real Madrid because they were better during the 180 minutes of the tie and because they have in Lionel Messi the world’s best player to unlock difficult games with moments of sheer brilliance. That is all. All the allegations of conspiracies, cheating, etc…are no more than background noise.
Not in my view they don't. Mourinho's claims are a great way to undermine Barca's success and an attempt to damage the team mentally. I think more so than anything, Jose Mourinho was trying to psychologically derail the Barcelona juggernaut.
5. Do You Think Domestic Form Will Have Any Impact on the Final?
Not really. Finals are very special games; all that matters is how both teams play during those 90 (maybe 120) minutes.
It really doesn’t matter that Barcelona had another extraordinary season in La Liga or that Manchester United won all their home games in the Premier League. The only deciding factor is how both teams will be, physically and mentally, during the game itself.
Domestic form will be an influence. Yes, it's a one-off game, but if you go into that game on good form, having scored a few goals and conceded less, that transpires onto the pitch. It gives you more confidence, especially when going a goal down.
The players would look back to their most recent games, remember their ability to win no matter what and take further confidence from that.
6. What About European Form?
It’s the same. What’s done is done. Past results don’t matter anymore.
That said, it’s fair to mention that both teams have had extraordinary European campaigns. United haven’t lost yet and haven’t conceded a single goal away from home. Barcelona have only one defeat so far…in London no less.
But during the 90 minutes, none of that will matter.
European form will actually have less of an impact in my view, because the semifinals were played a few weeks ago and the games will not be as fresh in the memory of the players as the most recent ones they played.
But of course, especially where Barcelona are concerned, form in the Champions League will be a factor—especially if they go behind to United. After all, they've beaten Real Madrid, they've beaten Arsenal—who's to say they can't beat Manchester United?
7. How Will Ryan Giggs' Super Injunction Affect the Red Devils?
I, for one, don’t believe it will affect that much, at least as far as United’s locker room is concerned. I’m sure everyone will support Giggs and there will be no internal rift. If anything, they’ll be looking to play extra hard to win it for Giggs.
Much as people like to blow it out of proportion, what Giggs did was in a way "normal." He was not the first nor will be the last man to cheat on his girlfriend/wife. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of the people who were so quick to criticize Giggs have been guilty of this very "sin’" at some point in their life.
I’m quite sure that nothing will change inside United’s locker room; they will all treat Giggs as they did before.
Of course that player himself, being human and all, will be a bit affected (after all, it’s his personal life we’re talking about) and Alex Ferguson will have to decide whether to play him or not.
Ryan Giggs' super injunction will have a big effect on him personally, but not so much the United team. The feeling of hostility towards Giggs from the general UK public has increased massively, and he'll feel that from the stands if he plays. People aren't happy at all about what he did.
However, whilst it would affect him, the rest of United would undoubtedly distance themselves from such things ahead of such a big occasion, so I doubt it would have much impact on them.
8. Lionel Messi vs. Wayne Rooney (Question Below)
Sky Italia has billed this match as a battle of the world's best player (Messi) vs. the world's most complete player (Rooney). Do you agree?
Well, Messi is definitely the world’s best player, no contest there. But I do not think Rooney is the world’s most complete player. That title belongs to Messi as well; there’s pretty much nothing that the Argentine prodigy can’t do and no attacking/midfield position where he does not wreak havoc.
There’s nothing wrong with Rooney; he’s certainly one of the world’s best players. But Messi is on a whole different level; he’s a once in a generation player. Despite his very young age, with the dominance Messi has been showing over the past few years, the only thing worth questioning is who the second-best player in the world is.
Can Rooney be in that discussion? When on his best game, yes. Last season Rooney showed what a dominant goal scorer he can be and this season he showed how complete his game is. He’ll be the No. 1 danger for Barcelona’s defense in Saturday’s final.
I do agree. Undoubtedly Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, capable of beating defenders left, right and centre, with such mesmerising ball control, stellar footwork and brilliant technique. Plus, his finishing ability inside the penalty area really is unparalleled.
As for Wayne Rooney, he is definitely the most complete player. Capable of being in the right place to score tap-ins whilst in the same game rifling home screamers from 25 yards, Rooney is great as a striker, but he's much more than that. His movement when he drops deep cleverly pulls defenders out of position, whilst his long-range passing is becoming more and more like that of Paul Scholes.
And of course, such is the energetic player he is, he's always able to make his presence felt when defending too. Without a doubt Wayne Rooney is the most complete player in the world.
9. What Were the Keys to Barcelona's Win in the 2009 Final?
Xavi and Iniesta, hands down.
There are days where even Messi is outshined by these two fantastic midfielders. The 2009 final was one of them. In the end of the match, Wayne Rooney claimed United had lost to a team led by the best player in the world. And no, he wasn’t referring to Messi, but to Andrés Iniesta.
Barcelona’s creative duo hardly put a foot wrong and set the pace during the whole match. United’s midfield and defense could never get anywhere near them.
That said, the first 10 minutes belonged to United and had they scored during that period, everything would have been different. The first goal by Samuel Eto’o was the key moment. Barcelona took the lead and never looked back since.
The key was probably the goal Samuel Eto'o scored after 10 minutes. Up until that point, it was all Manchester United, coasting as they constantly pressed Barcelona with an air of certainty that they'd score the opener circulating.
Out of the blue, Eto'o puts this seemingly comfortable United side behind in the game, and with it came a hugely demoralising blow. United thought they had the game under control, then all of a sudden, this Barca team scores and starts playing full of confidence. It was something United couldn't handle that night.
10. How Have Both Teams Changed Since That Final?
Both teams have improved, I believe. The managers are the same, the core of the teams and the football philosophies as well, but there have been minor improvements at least.
Manchester United have become a more cohesive and dangerous unit without Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. Both the Portuguese and the Argentine are among the world’s best forwards, but Sir Alex Ferguson has shown through the years that you don’t need the best players in the world to have the best team.
While the overall level of talent might have diminished, the team has improved. They have more attacking threats and can beat you in so many ways…they showed that by winning the Premier League and advancing to another Champions League final.
Barcelona have improved too. Their high pressure is more effective than ever, as is their ball retention—hard as it may seem to believe. Busquets, Pedro and David Villa have all added something great to the team. Barcelona still score loads of goals, but they’ve also beaten defensive records this season.
They’re even harder to beat than in 2009. Also, Messi is even better now, a frightening thought.
Since that final, Manchester United have become a stronger unit psychologically, emphasised by their Premier League title win this season despite a barrage of critics.
As for Barcelona, they've just become an even more experienced side, with players that really do know they're the best in the world now, especially considering they now have seven World Cup-winners in their team.
11. Will Playing at Wembley Be an Advantage for United?
Yes, they’ll be playing almost at home and they know the stadium better than Barcelona, so it’s obviously an advantage.
But a very slim one, I believe. After all, both teams will have the same number of fans there and Wembley means a lot to Barcelona and Pep Guardiola. It was in the old Wembley Stadium in 1992 that Pep Guardiola lifted Barcelona’s first ever European Cup.
Manchester United will have a great advantage playing at Wembley. Unlike Barca, they've played on the grass in cup finals many more times, and would by now know exactly how the ball plays off the grass and how to manage themselves on the pitch so not to pick up injuries (Michael Owen's Carling Cup final injury in 2010 being a prime example of how injuries on that pitch happen).
Barcelona won't know that, and it's not something you can just pick up training on the pitch for a day or two.
We hope you've enjoyed it so far. Read part 2 as well, for tactical analysis, match-ups and much more.