And so, they meet again


The Champions League final will be played out this coming Saturday at the fabled Wembley stadium in London, and it is Manchester United who should feel more at home here than Barcelona. Both teams are coming off of victorious domestic league campaigns, and thus can afford the luxury of resting key players in the final, inconsequential match of their respective domestic seasons. Manchester United have, with their latest title, become the most successful club in the history of English football, with Alex Ferguson achieving his stated aim to ‘knock Liverpool off their (insert expletive) perch’. That United have managed to secure the league in what has been one of the most keenly contested seasons in recent years, and that too with a squad that can hardly be labelled as the best to trot out in the famous red shirt, is a mighty achievement. Whether through injury or sheer poor form, key figures from previous seasons faded into the periphery for different parts of the campaign.
Rio Ferdinand, the club captain and a key figure at the heart of defence, has featured in roughly half of United’s games this season. Injuries and age took their toll on his performances, and his lack of pace was more pronounced as a result. Michael Carrick was a pale imitation of his former self until only recently, lacking any spirited performance and looking remarkably uncomfortable on and off the ball. Anderson, too, did not develop into the fearsome midfield ball winner that he was expected to, showing up at the party in true form only as the season drew to a close. Even Rooney, the talisman of the club, surrounded himself in personal and professional scandals, and the fallout resulted in a dip in form that threatened to derail United’s campaign.
To balance these, Ferguson has managed to draw consistent performances from the deepest recesses of the Old Trafford locker room. Ryan Giggs answered the call yet again to lead the side with his immense experience and skill, alongside Scholes, whose vision and range of passing helped United dominate possession time and again. A testament to Ferguson’s managerial ability was the form of Berbatov this season. For so long ridiculed by United’s own fans, the lanky Bulgarian took to his task this season to rack up the goals all the way through the first half of the season. Although the partnership of Rooney and Hernandez has proven more fruitful at unlocking defences, Berbatov deserves credit for carrying much of the goal scoring burden when it was needed for him to step up.
Still, all of United’s goals and domination would have been for nought were it not for the presence of the indomitable Vidic on the back line. The Serb has had another stellar season, culminating in his being named the Premier League Player of the Year. Leading a defence that has proven the most miserly both in England and in the Champions League, Vidic, and Van der Sar, have marshalled a defence that saw the relatively inexperienced Da Silva brothers, Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans rotate in and out of the defence.
All this has to be set to one side as we look ahead to the battle that awaits at Wembley. The last time these two sides met, it was also in the Champions League final, and Barcelona gave United a rigorous run around the pitch, always only to chase the ball and the shadows between which it was moving, all of which ended with a beautiful aerial header where Messi seemed to almost hang in the air as he dipped the ball across Van der Sar and into the far post. Since that day, though, things have changed in both the sides.
At United, Rooney and Hernandez have forged a partnership based on diagonal runs and dinked passes, as opposed to direct one-touch football or holding up of the ball. Given the pace possessed by both of these players, and with able support on the wings available in the form of Nani, Valencia and Giggs, the Barcelona side backs will have to be wary of losing possession when going forward, as United can counter with ferocious pace.
While Barcelona are not practitioners of attacking on the counter, they are capable of breaking en masse, with Messi running through the centre while Pedro or Dani Alves burst down the right hand side, looking to be found by either one of Iniesta or Xavi. David Villa is usually left to play the ball inside from the wing, towards Iniesta or Xavi, before attempting a run behind the opposition defence. United’s aerial ability in the form of Vidic and Ferdinand will not be easily overcome, and with the watchful Van der Sar at the back, this form of attack should not be all that hard to stifle.
Barcelona’s best bet will be to pass the ball through midfield on the ground, and look for Messi to provide the fireworks in and around the penalty area. While this may sound something like ‘pass the ball to Messi and let him score’, there is more to it than that. With a front five of Messi, Villa, Pedro, Xavi and Iniesta passing the ball among themselves around the penalty area, defenders would find it hard to resist stepping away from their mark and towards the ball in an attempt to cut out a pass, and this is where Barcelona can overrun them.
As for United, for all of their manager’s words that United will go out to attack, he will know that their greatest hope lies in being rock solid at the back, and quick on the counter. With both teams able to afford resting their prized assets this weekend, the match on the 28th promises to be a cracker.