This year like no other, the final of the Champions League could hardly do more to reflect the pattern of dominance present in the domestic game. Where the early 2000s saw Bayern, Madrid, and the Italian sides regularly define seasons with their success, the last six or seven years have unquestionably been the era of Barcelona and Manchester United. Serial winners of their respective domestic leagues, these two European giants have also started sprawling themselves over the latter stages of the Champions League year in year out.
It seems more than two years ago that this fixture last drew the domestic season to a close. So much has changed within that space of time. The omnipresence of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Barcelona’s core should not obscure the subtle changes to the Catalans’ 2011 mould. Messi himself has risen meteorically in stature. His rebirth as a false #9, the spearhead of Barcelona’s attack, and his subsequently remarkable goal-scoring achievements, has surely seen him complete his previously inevitable procession to the pantheon of inter-generational greats. Elsewhere, Sergio Busquets has matured in his defensive-midfield/centre-back hybrid; Pedro has cemented his reputation as one of the best forwards in the game; David Villa has added a certain sharpness to the striking trio which, although hardly lacking before, has been valuable; and Guardiola himself has gone a long way to proving himself as one of the greatest innovators of the modern era. They are also a much, much better side, and a side that’s full to the brim on confidence.
Clearly though, the changes are far more obvious within the United set-up. The team itself has been very hard to predict; Ferguson rarely elects to play the same XI in consecutive games. The obvious catalyst was Ronaldo’s departure, making the talents and temperament of Wayne Rooney far more central to the side’s functioning. But if ever a team was struggling for an identity it would surely be this side. Over the last two seasons it’s been near-impossible to identify what’s been consistent about United, let alone what’s been so consistently good about them. This season, the breathtakingly mercurial performances (7-1 at home to Blackburn and the two Schalke ties) have juxtaposed awkwardly with some atrociously lacklustre efforts, but most surprising has been the uncharacteristic defensive frailty and mental fragility that’s occasionally crept onto the scene (think back to the leads thrown away against Fulham and Everton last autumn). The one constant factor, and probably United’s biggest asset of late, has been Ferguson, who above all else seems to get his players to perform when the situation requires.
What to expect
Whereas the 2009 affair was billed as an advert for the beautiful game with attacking starlets lining up on
either side, this time around we can expect a far less exotic display. Barcelona are probably one of the most consistent teams of all time in terms of their approach to the game; the following passage isn’t just lazy journalism. They will hold a high line, dictate the tempo and shift the ball around until an opening arises. It will be all Barcelona from the off, and their self- imposed quest to better their possession statistics in each game will undoubtedly be on show. They will couple this strategy on the ball with possibly the most intense off-the-ball pressing game football’s ever witnessed (just ask Michael Carrick).
More interesting will be the approach Ferguson elects to pursue. In 2009 United were the favourites. They had Ronaldo, they had Vidic and Ferdinand, they had the experience of beating Barcelona the previous season and, of course, were returning Champions. Barcelona were unproven. Guardiola was still in his first season, and the glaring deficiencies of Madrid and every other Spanish Primera side made it hard to gauge the extent of their successes in La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Ferguson got arrogant; he departed from the tactics inherited from his deputy Carlos Quieroz (employed against Rijkaard’s 2008 outfit) thinking he could better Xavi and Iniesta at their own game with Carrick, Giggs, and Anderson. Since then, Barcelona have been widely recognised as one of the greats, the core of the Catalan club effectively won Spain the World Cup last summer, and one man has persistently illuminated the way to beat them. Real Madrid may not have defeated Barcelona in the semi-finals, but if the recent succession of riveting clasicos has taught us anything it’s that Mourinho’s strategy is as good as gold when it comes to halting Guardiola’s men. In style, Mourinho hasn’t really done anything that Ferguson didn’t do in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, nor has he improved much on Guus Hiddink’s tactical approach utilised by Chelsea in their semi with Barca back in 2009. Mourinho has, however, done it consistently (barring the monumental blunder back in November after Ferguson-levels of tactical arrogance were unwisely pursued) and he’s done it against a much better Barcelona outfit. Last season’s showcase of defensive majesty in charge of Inter was something to behold, even if it provided a fairly dull neutral spectacle. Sitting deep, allowing Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi time and space on the ball only in unthreatening areas, pressing full-backs Alves and (probably) Abidal fiercely from the front, and relying on the central midfielders to intercept and track runs from midfield while preparing to hit them like a bullet on the counter seems to be the modus operandi when it comes to toppling Barcelona.
But will Ferguson’s arrogance get the better of him again? The signs are unclear: Sir Alex recently departed from the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation so regularly employed against Arsenal so as to accommodate the talents of Javier Hernandez. As expected, Arsenal’s superior manipulation of the newly-afforded space left United losers for the first time in 5 games against the Gunners. Such a move against Barcelona would surely condemn the Reds to another obliteration at the hands of Messi and Guardiola. But it is a genuine selection dilemma. Hernandez has been one of the top performers of this year’s campaign, scoring goals against opposition of all quality. Leaving him on the bench along with (as appears to be the trend in “big” games) Nani will leave United slightly shy in the goal-scoring department.
Ferguson won’t risk starting Hernandez, and will set out in sensible fashion with the following side to counter the predictable Barcelona XI:
Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher/Anderson (pending on Fletcher’s fitness issues), Giggs; Park, Valencia; Rooney
Valdes; Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Villa, Messi
It probably won’t be a classic, but if United follow Mourinho’s example they are capable of causing an upset, and what an upset it would be.