It is a date that would immortalise one team. Barcelona, the proclaimed greatest team in the world. Manchester United, without doubt for the last 25 years the best in England. Both teams own three European Cups. 1968, 1999, 2008. Three years that have a special place in the mind of every United fan. This year, we were asked to believe, or BE4EVE. No. 4 hangs in the balance. How could United do it? More to the point, as many had asked, could United do it full stop? I say this, not just as a United fan, if there is one team that has bucked the odds for the last 25 years, if one team is capable of an upset of titanic proportions, it is Manchester United.
United's road to Wembley was smooth enough. Drawn against Spanish side Valenica, Scottish side Glasgow Rangers and Turkish side Bursaspor in the group stages, United conceded just one goal. They picked up four wins, and two draws, topping the group on 14 points. The notable low light was the home match against Rangers, with the Glasgow side parking the bus to prevent any excitement. That game was also marred by Antonio Valencia's horrific injury, which resulted in the Ecuadorian missing the next six months. However, United pressed on and progressed to the Round of 16 easily.
Drawn against Marseille, the first leg was played at the Stade Velodrome on the 23rd of February. The match ended 0-0, setting up a slightly nervy second leg at Old Trafford on the 15th of March. However, United with the luck of the Irish on a day so close to St. Patrick's Day were able to beat the French side and save for a blunder by Wes Brown which gave a tense final 10 minutes, were comfortable in victory.
United would play Chelsea in the quaterfinals, first at Stamford Bridge, where Wayne Rooney provided the only goal of the game in the 24th minute, after a deft cross by Ryan Giggs. The day, however, belonged to United's evergreen keeper Edwin Van Der Sar, who produced two magnificent saves. Chelsea headed up north to face United in the return leg, where Hernandez and Park, on 43 and 77 respectively, effectively sealed the game. Drogba provided a consolation goal shortly after.
And then there were four. As El Classico was played out on the other side of the draw, United entered two classic performances against German mid-table team Schalke. United beat the Germans 2-0 in the away fixture, with Giggs and Rooney scoring within two minutes of each other. News that a second string side was to be fielded in the game at Old Trafford surely made many fans nervous, but there was no need. Manuel Neuer's prospective employers Bayern Munich must have been reconsidering their offer as United soundly thrashed Schalke 4-1. Anderson scored a double on 72 and 76, with Valencia having opened the account on 26, and Gibson following on 31. It looked too easy as United set up the repeat final from Rome in 2009.
So, in the final hours looking forward to the match (I wrote the guts of this at about 1am on match day), the questions began. How? How would United line out? How would this influence the flow of play? How would we handle the menace of Messi? How could United stop the Catalan juggernaut?
Before I had the official line up to hand, I would have picked the starting 11 as follows:
Van Der Sar
Rafael Ferdinand Vidic Evra
As you can see, that is a pretty attacking formation. That is what United need against a team like Barcelona. Arsenal proved that sitting back doesn't work. However, Real Madrid proved you don't go full steam against Barca. That is why Carrick and Park, two midfielders perfectly capable of tracking back are in my 11. Rooney would also have the option of drifting back if needed.
Hernandez would be the sole man up front, a player who would likely cause problems for the hot-headed Mascherano. Valenica, of course, would be coming up against a left back who is normally a central defender in Puyol. United should look to exploit that. Nani could torment Pique on United's left. Nani has proved more than capable of this many times, with specific memories of an "average" Nani tearing the Arsenal defense to shreds last season.
United's one true weakness in this match is defense. The defenders cannot allow themselves to be stretched. Ferdinand and Vidic must remain as a solid core against any incoming attack. Rafael and Evra should deal with the wide men and get themselves in front of any cross. Van Der Sar, of course was in goal in 2009 for the defeat to Barca. However, it seems he has in fact got better since then. Not to mention the goals were the fault of a poor defensive that night. VDS will be in top form for his final game for United.
So, how should United play? As I said, you can't go for either extreme against the Catalonian giants. Nor can you try to out-Barcelona Barcelona. What United have to do is what they have done all season. Grind the result out. Don't play the pretty football. Play ugly football, the likes of which got United a late result against Everton. The likes of which United used to beat Chelsea to win the league. Just grind down the defense, and don't give away the ball. Because no team can out-United United. BE4EVE.