Thursday, 26 May 2011

United vs Barcelona Champions League Final Preview

Introduction

Manchester United and Barcelona will contest the 2011 Champions League Final on Saturday May 28th 2011 at Wembley Stadium. The two best sides in Europe over the last few years will do battle at a venue where previously both have won this prestigious prize.

No United fan will ever forget 1968's victory which was the culmination of Matt Busby's vision for European football for English clubs. This dream had been shattered by the Munich air crash in 1958 which saw seven players die and left the man himself being give the last rites. Just ten years later, Manchester United had been rebuilt and triumphed over the might of Benfica to bring the cup to Old Trafford for the first time.

Wembley will also hold special memories for Barcelona on Saturday as it was the venue for their first lifting of the famous trophy. A trademark Ronald Koeman free kick ended Sampdoria's hopes and became the foundation for their future success in the competition.

Both teams have been recently crowned Champions of their country and will be well rested ahead of the game. Barcelona were forced to alter their travel plans and arrived into the UK a few days ahead of schedule due to concerns over the ash cloud re-appearing.

The head to head record between the two teams is perfectly poised with three wins apiece and four draws from the ten matches. Incredibly, both sides have won 57% of their matches in the European Cup/Champions League. United have won 130 out of 228 with Barcelona winning 125 from 220.

On the way to the final, the Catalan giants have disposed of Arsenal, Shakhtar and Real Madrid in the knock-out rounds having topped their group to qualify.


The Opposition
Barcelona have once again been a class apart in La Liga, only losing twice and winning 30 of their 38 games. They have the second best scoring record behind Madrid but the best defence with just 22 conceded. Lionel Messi will be looking for his 50th goal of the season at Wembley after a sensational season although it is worth noting that he is yet to score on English soil. David Villa and Pedro have both weighed in with over 20 goals this season although the former has encountered a dip in form recently that has seen his goal tally remain virtually static.

It is worth noting that they have scored 30 goals in the final fifteen minutes of matches in all competitions - a clear example of how teams can finally succumb to the previous 75 minutes of pressure and possession. It is also interesting to note that Barcelona have only conceded eight goals in the first thirty minutes of games this season including just two cup goals in  the first 15 minutes.

Pep Guardiola has the luxury of a fully fit squad with which to choose from apart from the concerns over Eric Abidal who is not 100% after liver tumour surgery. If the Frenchman is unable to start then either Puyol or Adriano will start at left back in his place. I would imagine that they will be keen to partner Puyol and Piqué in the centre of defence so if Abidal is 80% fit then I would expect him to play before making way late in the second half. Victor Valdés has had an impressive season in the Barca goal. He often has to contend with long periods of inactivity so deserves praise for his concentration levels as well as excelling with shot stopping and distribution. Dani Alves is the best attacking right back in the world without question and plays as almost an auxiliary forward player and has managed to find the net on four occasions.

The rest of the team picks itself and has been the foundation for most of this season's excellence. Busquets will perform his usual holding role with the little maestros Xavi and Iniesta alongside pulling the strings. Up front in a very flexible front three will be Villa, Messi and Pedro who will all interchange positions throughout the game and thus make them very difficult to mark.


Tactics
The big question ahead of the game is how are United going to stop the Barcelona machine from repeating the  comfortable nature of victory in the 2009 Champions League Final? This can be broken down into two parts; how do United stop Barca in attack and how do they put them under pressure when they are attacking?

The first thing you notice from Barcelona games in recent years is the vast amount of possession that they accrue during a game and Saturday will be no different. It is simply a fact that United will have to cope with long periods without the ball and not get frustrated in the attempt to regain it. On paper, the defensive qualities of Carrick and Giggs in the centre look worryingly fragile against the Catalan side's fluency. The key to the midfield battle will be the help given by the likes of Rooney and Park who will need to drop in when appropriate and try to disrupt the much heralded tiki-taka style of their opponents. Park will no doubt have licence to roam in a similar style as shown at Old Trafford against Chelsea in the recent league game where he was regularly seen breaking up play centrally. Rooney will in turn need to keep an eye on Busquets who will lie the deepest and look to release simple balls to his more technically gifted colleagues. The Englishman will station himself nearby and look to disrupt his time on the ball. At times, he may even allow Busquets to have the ball and drop off him deeper to assist the others in the centre. By condensing the play in the middle, it does leave space out wide for the likes of Alves to exploit so Evra will need to be vigilant and not get caught too far advanced. Valencia on the other side will look to keep his full back occupied in a similar fashion to how he dominated Ashley Cole recently. In fact, United's right could well prove pivotal to the outcome of the game as Fábio will be encouraged to assist the Ecuadorian in carefully thought out forays deep into Barcelona territory. Whoever plays at left back (Abidal/Puyol) will almost certainly be much more defensive than Alves on the opposite flank. The other variable will be how United deal with Messi and his roaming around the pitch from his fabled "false 9" position. It would be very dangerous for either Vidic or Ferdinand to follow him into midfield so they will need to pass him onto Carrick if necessary, to keep an eye on. What is clear is that United must not allow the Argentinian to run unopposed at either centre back. No doubt, Guardiola will look to isolate Vidic when he becomes susceptible to pace and trickery and can  be liable to concede set pieces or pick up a caution. Concentration is key and there is currently no better centre back partnership in Europe. Evra and Fabio as full backs will have to be prepared to cover down the outside of the centre backs also where the likes of Pedro and Villa can cause damage.

The second part of the conundrum is how do United impose enough of their own game in order to create chances for themselves. The key will be speed on the counter attack and United have it in abundance. Whenever the ball breaks for them, look for midfielders to seek out Valencia, Park and even Evra out wide and for the likes of Rooney and Giggs to break forward. Javier Hernández has a crucial role to play and it may well be one that leads to him being substituted in the second half due to the effort exerted. He will look to occupy the centre backs with his clever movement and relentless running. He may well be caught offside a few times but it only takes one perfectly times run and he will not be caught. If Puyol plays in the centre then I would envisage that the Mexican will look to pull onto him as much as possible and then lose him when the cross comes in. Piqué can also be beaten for pace at times so is not much less vulnerable. Set pieces could also be important with Valdés occasionally vulnerable to the crossed ball. However, it has to be pointed out that United's set plays have been lamentable throughout the season so look for short corners and second phase crosses into the box similar to the Vidic goals against Chelsea.

Another key to overcoming the might of the Catalans will be that United must retain their discipline in the face of any play acting or referee intimidation. An injudicious challenge or reaction could have catastrophic consequences on their chances of success. It is hoped that the young ref appointed allows the game to flow but equally reacts to situations with calmness and perspective.


United


This is my predicted eleven and it is the one that dismantled a poor Schalke side in the first leg of the semi final. Edwin Van der Sar will be playing the final game of his illustrious career and to go out on a similar high to the great Peter Schmeichel would be a fitting end. We are truly blessed to have seen him in a United jersey over the last few years and the void created by his retirement could prove onerous for his potential replacement from Spain. The only true decision for the manager in my view is at right back where the Brazilian twins are fighting among themselves for the berth with John O'Shea a distant third in line. Fábio gets the nod from me purely on recent form and fitness grounds. He is a touch less impetuous than his brother who excels slightly more in attack. Whoever is chosen will not let the team down and should United succeed, there will be no prouder family come 9:45pm on Saturday night. The remainder of the back four is made up by the tried and trusted Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra who will need to be on their toes all evening.

My midfield four have been a revelation recently, working so well as a unit both in defence and attack. The one worry potentially is that United do not possess a natural ball winner and will rely on pressing Barcelona into a mistake. Carrick's performance will be vital and it is hoped that he is able to draw on the confidence gained from overcoming the likes of Schalke and Chelsea recently, games in which he truly excelled. He can sometimes lack a little in confidence but what is clear is that his team-mates and opponents rate him highly. Park will be looking to perform to a similar level as shown against Chelsea where he covered every blade of grass but was equally adept in defence as attack. Valencia on the opposite side will be asked to cause danger down the right flank but also be able to support his young full back when Barcelona have possession. His pinpoint crosses have shown signs of returning recently and they could prove a vital weapon with the movement of Hernández and Rooney in the box. Giggs will look to put a personally difficult week to one side as he approaches another trophy to add to his burgeoning collection. He will look to pull the strings in the centre but do not be surprised to see him out wide at times with Park dropping in alongside Carrick. It is hoped that his delivery from set pieces returns to a decent standard at such a crucial time.

Rooney will no doubt be an extra midfielder at times in his "trequartista" role that has seen him rejuvenated in recent months. He will look to perform on the big stage in his preferred position as for once he does not have to sacrifice himself to the same extent as in previous finals. Generally, if Rooney plays well then so do United and the team will look to their "conductor" to orchestrate the moves that will damage the Catalan defensive line. I have already mentioned the importance of the Hernández role on Saturday. He has had an amazing first season in England and has already endeared himself to the United faithful with his skill, maturity and passion. There is little doubt that he will be of huge concern to Guardiola who has been fulsome in praise for the Little Pea and his goalscoring exploits this year. His side have not come under serious pressure many times this season and it will be interesting to see how they react to the pace and power of the United forward line.


Predicted Subs: Kuszczak, O'Shea, Smalling, Scholes, Fletcher, Nani, Berbatov
The likes of Gibson, Rafael, Owen, Anderson, and Evans amongst others all face the heartache of missing out on a place in the squad for the game. The most difficult selection in my opinion is either Fletcher or Anderson for the spare midfield berth with veteran Scholes surely deserving a spot. The manager's decision rests on whether he feels the Scotsman has had sufficient match time to regain his full power after a debilitating virus saw him sidelined for a couple of months. It is tough on Nani and Berbatov who have been instrumental in the achievement of winning the 19th League title but there is little doubt that the team selected above has performed better without these two in the latter stages of the season. They could, however have a vital role to play as the depth of squad is one area that United can lay claim to superiority. It would be no surprise to see a vital contribution that affects the outcome of the match from one of the substitutes in the very best traditions of United folklore. One need only to think back to the Nou Camp in 1999 on this very date (May 26th) to prove this point where the heroics of Sheringham and Solskjaer helped secure the manager's first European Cup trophy.


Scoreline Prediction
Predicting the outcome of a game against the two best teams in Europe was always going to be a difficult task. Matches such as these hinge on such small details and one mistake or piece of skill could alter the balance in one side's favour. Although I am a United fan and have been for nearly 30 years, I am happy to admit that overall Barcelona are the better side and if they play near to their potential then I think they will win.  However, there are a number of factors that are nudging me towards a United victory and it could easily come down to the difference in quality on the respective benches. Barca have relied on the nucleus of around 15 players all season and their form has notably dipped recently away from the vibrancy of early to mid season. United, on the other hand are relatively fresh (due to Ferguson's wily rotation policy) and have players on the bench that can change the game.

I am therefore going to predict a 2-1 victory for the Reds with goals from Rooney and the winner from Hernández. Iniesta will equalise for the Catalan club.

For this to happen, United will need to have a great deal of luck and play with a control that they have shown only intermittently this season. It will need to be a total team effort with everyone playing their part.

And what an end to the season that would be. To lift our fourth Champions League trophy would be a truly monumental achievement for the team and also for the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson. With Liverpool well and truly at the bottom of the cage having been knocked off their perch, to then prevail against one of the greatest teams of the last twenty years would mean that season 2010-11 would be remembered as arguably his finest accomplishment.

Please leave any comments below or contact me on Twitter.

The Manchester United Webchat - May 25th 2011

Below is a transcript of a new idea for a United "live" webchat that I am trialling on WrittenOffside.com. Joining me for this experiment was Chris from CantheyScore.com as we discussed the weekend's game versus Blackpool, the Youth Cup Final, David De Gea and the Champions League Final.


I would welcome your feedback (both good and bad) on this potential new feature for the site so please either leave a comment at the bottom or contact me via Twitter.


The final match of the season - Blackpool at Old Trafford

James_WrittenOff: I thought we would start with a quick look back on the Blackpool game which finished 4-2 and sadly saw Blackpool relegated. Were you surprised at the quality in the starting lineup that Sir Alex picked?

Chris- Can They Score: Well, I was most certainly surprised to see Vidic starting, considering the excellent form of Smalling recently. I think Sir Alex really has a tough task as to who to choose between him & Evans on the bench on Sat so I thought he might have played both but obviously he didn't.

Chris- Can They Score: From where I was sitting, it looked like Vidic was carrying an injury in the second half and he was substituted early but I am sure that was only a precaution. It seems the risk of injury was one Sir Alex was prepared to take in order to maintain match sharpness.

James_WrittenOff: I thought it was a brave call by Sir Alex to be honest. Vidic was the main worry as it would have been easy for him to pick up an injury against a team that were up for the fight to stay in the league

Chris- Can They Score: My heart was in my mouth when he went in for that crunching sliding tackle in the first half, when he was caught late!

James_WrittenOff: Yeah I think the match sharpness angle was the key. I think Sir Alex felt in 2009 that the team were too well rested and lost focus a little so he is determined to be different this time around. Rooney, Giggs and Scholes all got some match time last night too which was telling. Seems like he is keen to keep things ticking over

Chris- Can They Score: Yes, I agree totally. In 2009, even the likes of Ji Sung Park looked a bit leggy, having not played a competitive match in 2 and a half weeks- Its a lesson he seems to have learned the hard way! One must also remember, Rio hadn't played in a month or two before Rome because he had been injured, it will make a big difference that he is fully fit this time

James_WrittenOff: It was good to see Owen and Anderson get goals on Sunday but I am not sure if either will be on the bench on Saturday to be honest. If Fergie wants Fletcher on the bench then Anderson misses out for me and cannot see how Owen makes it

Chris- Can They Score: Personally, I think Sir Alex gave Owen the opportunity to cement a place on the bench last night, following his goal on Sunday. However, he just didn't have his shooting boots on, which was disappointing to see

Chris- Can They Score: Regarding Anderson, I think it is going to be between him & Scholes for a place on the bench because I think Sir Alex will be desperate to include Fletcher, if no more reason that the fact he is versatile.

James_WrittenOff: To be on the bench though would mean no place for Berbatov surely and that won't happen. I think ideally we need 12 in the starting lineup and about ten on the bench!

Chris- Can They Score: Sadly, I get the feeling Scholes might call it a day if he was omitted from the squad- its our biggest game of the year and if he misses, he may feel his time is up


Chris- Can They Score: Regarding Berbatov, I don't think he did himself any favours on Sunday, I think Sir Alex gave Owen the chance to make the bench but he didn't take it

James_WrittenOff: I get the feeling if for nothing more than sentimental reasons that Scholes will be on the bench but on current form you could argue that Anderson deserves it possibly. Seems like treachery to say that about genius Scholes but shows his time is coming to an end

Chris- Can They Score: I know, even suggesting he might be left from the bench seems like treason! But it is a sad reality...


Chris- Can They Score: I'm all for fairy tales, I would go mental if Scholes were to come on and score one last screamer! That would be unbelievable, magical, perfect!

James_WrittenOff: Would be perfect way to round off a wonderful career for Scholesy. He could not top that ending!


Sir Alex & the 19th trophy (photo via @TriciaRKG)
James_WrittenOff: Give us a brief summary on what it was like being there for the celebrations and what the atmosphere was like?

Chris- Can They Score: Well, first and foremost, I would just like to say that the Blackpool fans were absolutely awesome. The Tangerine fans were awesome throughout, even when their fate was confirmed.


Chris- Can They Score: The match itself was thoroughly enjoyable, Blackpool came out and attacked, like we expected, and to be fair to them they were the only team to take the lead at Old Trafford this season.

James_WrittenOff: I thought it was wonderful how the home fans reacted to Holloway at the end and to Blackpool in general. Really showed our class there.

Chris- Can They Score: But the atmosphere generally was special... starting off with the guard of honour, then to the superb mosaic from Stretford Eng flags


Chris- Can They Score: The crowd throughout was buoyant and I agree totally with you, definitely showed our class. To be fair I think most people respect what Blackpool have done this season but it was just surreal at the end


Chris- Can They Score: I honestly think the image of Holloway waving goodbye to his fans, only to then be given a standing ovation by every single person inside Old Trafford was very very special.


Chris- Can They Score: A testament to the man

James_WrittenOff: Agreed, and he looked moved by the ovation at such a special ground. Hopefully he will be back

Chris- Can They Score: Well, I don't know whether my emotions are getting the better of me, if I'm being too sentimental but I honestly think he'd make a great assistant manager to Sir Alex. Obviously, it would mean he'd relinquish the control he has as a manager but he would jump at the chance. He loves football and he'd be honoured to work with Sir Alex. Despite being defensively naive (more the quality of players rather than tactically) he plays football in the right manner and would certainly beat Mike Phelan for the MOTD interviews!

James_WrittenOff: Not sure Sir Alex would go for someone like him as an assistant! I think he would end up throttling him within about 10 minutes. He is also perfect for a small club, a job at a bigger one would be too much for him. But definitely agree he would be great value for BBC interviews rather than Phelan who for me is a bit of a "yes" man for me and Sir Alex knows he can keep him in check

The Youth Cup Final Second Leg

Chris- Can They Score: It was great to see us win the YC for the 10th Time, I think our team really showed their quality throughout the rounds- with victories at Upton Park & Anfield, as well as a good display at SW6

James_WrittenOff: it was clear that eventually our class told in the final but credit to Sheffield United who looked to have plenty of decent players. Great experience for our lads to play at great stadiums such as Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford


2011 FA Youth Cup Winners (picture via Roy Keane's Gum Tumblr)


James_WrittenOff: Morrison will get the headlines but there are other unsung heroes in the side who deserve a mention like Lingard, Thorpe, Johnstone. Pogba was again very impressive in parts and Tunnicliffe looks like he has a future too. Will Keane impresses each time with his composure and reminds me of Sheringham a little bit

Chris- Can They Score: Yeah, Morrison generally does (for the right and wrong reasons) but I think it's a real team effort. The likes of Larnell Cole, Lingard, Tunnicliffe and Fornasier work tirelessly for the team- their work ethics are sensational.


Chris- Can They Score: I think W Keane has a very promising future as a professional footballer, whether it'll be at United only time will tell.


Chris- Can They Score: I think we are seeing the dividends of continued investment in the facilities at Carrington and purchasing of foreign youngsters- we should have a strong team next year in the FAYC too even when this lot progress to the Reserves

James_WrittenOff: Agree with all of that. So difficult to predict who will "make it" out of these youngsters but most should get a good career out of the game even if not at Old Trafford


James_WrittenOff: Sometimes it is the lesser talented ones that have to work extra hard that get the best careers and Gary Neville is the perfect example

Chris- Can They Score: I think that's the same with Ryan Tunnicliffe, he is by no means the most naturally gifted player in the team but he certainly seems to have the spirit and determination to progress

James_WrittenOff: Yeah good point. Do you agree that it will be another year or so before we see any of these lads in the first team squad or is there a chance that Sir Alex may blood some in Carling Cup next year?

Chris- Can They Score: Well, a lot of people are getting very excited by this current crop of kids but I can't see any being introduced too quickly, unless we have an injury crisis next year.


Chris- Can They Score: I think they all need at least another year in the Reserves- for various reasons


Chris- Can They Score: The likes of Cleverley, Welbeck etc will be the ones who Sir Alex will work hardest to get in the team


Chris- Can They Score: After that he'll be focusing on the likes of Josh King and deciding if they have a future at United

James_WrittenOff: Yeah those two are the next ones in line and deserve a run next year to see if they are United players. Both have done well out on loan. Next year's squad is going to be very competitive!

Chris- Can They Score: It will be very interesting, I need to reacquaint myself with the 25-man squad rules etc!

James_WrittenOff: There is a number who can be outside that who are "homegrown" so we should be fine in that respect whereas other teams will struggle for sure

Chris- Can They Score: Yeah, that would be an added bonus of bringing in that Varone if we decide we need a DEF because he would be classed as homegrown

The potential signing of David De Gea

Chris- Can They Score: In terms of summer signings, what do you make of the apparent signing of David De Gea for £17m? The second most expensive GK in history if the deal goes through!

James_WrittenOff: Clearly he has a lot of talent and could prove to be a cost effective buy. I trust in the coaching team who will have scoured the world for the best so if he is their choice then I am fine with that. My worry is his age, lack of English skills and the daunting prospect of following Edwin. He will also be under the microscope but am sure his personality will see him cope.


James_WrittenOff: I am not sure how adept he is with the ball at his feet but he will use these skills more than at Athletico and Edwin is the master of this much over looked art. Communication with the back 4 will also be key but he has enough time to learn enough English to get by unless he uses Capello's teacher!

Chris- Can They Score: Its good to hear he asked for time to think about it initially, it shows maturity in that he considered it all- some said the hesitation was a sign of weakness but I'd argue its a strength. I'm also glad to hear his whole family and girlfriend will be moving over with him, that makes a big difference, as it can be seen with the way Hernandez has settled!


Chris- Can They Score: I think he definitely has talent but as you say he is very young. At 20, he is 4 years younger than Joe Hart and 6 months younger than Arsenal's Szczeny


Chris- Can They Score: But he has been playing for Athletico for two seasons now, and he has played for Spain's youth teams at major tournaments, as well as winning the UEFA Cup with Athletico at just 19.

James_WrittenOff: To be fair, I have heard that the alleged time he took to make a decision was partially due to tidying things up with his old agent as he is now with the famous Jorge Mendes who seems omnipresent in all United foreign deals at the moment

Chris- Can They Score: Yeah, he's most certainly that! Ronaldo, Anderson, Nani...... Bebe

James_WrittenOff: Amazing to think that De Gea is half Edwin's age! Good luck to him because he is going to be under so much pressure but sure he can deal with it all. Will be interesting to see how he acts after a big mistake which is inevitable at some point. Strength of character will shine through I am sure!

Champions League Final versus Barcelona

James_WrittenOff: Shall we round off with the Champions League Final?

Chris- Can They Score: Definitely, that minor fixture at the end of the week!

Chris- Can They Score: Everyone seems to think they know Sir Alex's team on Saturday, what are your thoughts about his Starting XI?

James_WrittenOff: I wonder if he has a master plan to surprise us all to be honest that he has been developing in his head!


James_WrittenOff: Realistically i think the only decision is at right back where Fabio, Rafael and John O'Shea are battling it out. I would go with Fabio but his brother would also suffice. Not keen on John against the Barca pace. Basically I would pick the side that played Schalke away

Chris- Can They Score: Well, I would have to agree but I am sure Sir Alex has at least one surprise for us!


Chris- Can They Score: It should be a different game from Rome, considering the fact Ronaldo won't be playing. The way Hernandez works tirelessly for the team will certainly help us press the Barca defence but I personally think our width may be a key factor this time round, with Valencia on the right, rather than Park (who will now be on the left) and Rooney pushed into the middle, where he plays best


Chris- Can They Score: I think the added creativity will really cause the Barcelona defence difficulties. Their defence is also a topic of debate, considering how it will differ from last time.


Chris- Can They Score: 2009 in Rome


Chris- Can They Score: Puyol Toure Pique Sylvinho


Chris- Can They Score: 2011 in London


Chris- Can They Score: Alves Mascherano Pique Puyol


Chris- Can They Score: (That is if Abidal isn't deemed sufficiently match fit)

Let's hope these scenes are repeated on Saturday (picture via Balajithoughts Blog)

James_WrittenOff: Everyone is assuming Hernandez will play  and i think it must be a certainty given his form and the effect he has on the team. This is not the time for Sir Alex to revert to a defensive set up. What is for sure is that Park and Rooney will have to do a lot of work (which they love) to assist Giggs and Carrick yet still be able to be effective on the counter


James_WrittenOff: I would suggest that Abidal will play if they can get him 80% match fit. If not then it looks a fragile back 4 for me. Puyol is vulnerable on the left with Mascherano not suited to centre back. Pique is a little off form and Alves is weak when in defensive positions. But will we be able to get enough of the ball?!

Chris- Can They Score: Well, I don't expect us to have lots of the ball but I think we should be able to hurt them when we get it. As you've said, all their defenders have their weaknesses, especially if Abidal doesn't play.


Chris- Can They Score: Just like Rio in Rome, Puyol hasn't played competitively since the 3rd May- He is bound to be a bit rusty!


Chris- Can They Score: And you have mentioned the others


Chris- Can They Score: Overall, I think the first goal will, as always, be massive!


Chris- Can They Score: I think both teams would struggle to overturn a deficit

James_WrittenOff: Your good friend Mr Balague said on Revista that whoever scores first wins! Simple as that.


James_WrittenOff: I thought he would be pro Barca but he is edging towards United I feel.

Chris- Can They Score: Well, he first made that point in his interview with me! ;)

James_WrittenOff: I think it is a bonus that we have the league safely wrapped up as going into the game without a trophy would have piled extra pressure on


James_WrittenOff: You got the exclusive mate!

Chris- Can They Score: "With Barcelona struggling to score at the moment, there won’t be too many goals and I think that if you score first it will be very, very difficult for Barcelona to turn it round."  This statement is taken from my interview with Guillem, click the words to go to the post.

James_WrittenOff: Will be fascinating to see if Fergie has any special plans for Messi. I am not sure he will as we don't really have the personnel to carry it out. If you concentrate on him then one of the others will destroy you for sure

Chris- Can They Score: I think there's only one player who could do a job on him without getting sent off, he wouldn't do the best job and it would ruin our own chemistry but I honestly believe O'Shea would be the best option if we were to man mark him- sure he doesn't have the pace put he has experience- lots of it. One of the twins would be off after half an hour. Fletcher would have been the only other option but he's unfit- same with Hargreaves

James_WrittenOff: I would not think O'Shea is up to that job to be honest. I think Messi's trickery would be too much but as you say doing that would ruin our shape. Let them worry about us and the best team will prevail

James_WrittenOff: Who is your choice at right back

Chris- Can They Score: I'd go for Fabio


Chris- Can They Score: He's not as good as Rafael going forward, but less inclined to get sent off

James_WrittenOff: My bench prediction is Kuszczak, Smalling, O'Shea, Scholes, Anderson Nani, Berbatov


James_WrittenOff: I would have said Fletch for Ando but as he did not play yesterday I am not convinced about him any more

Chris- Can They Score: I went for Lindegaard, O'Shea, Smalling, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov


Chris- Can They Score: Only because Sir Alex loves Fletcher and Scholes


Chris- Can They Score: But I'm sure he is more professional than that

James_WrittenOff: I agree by the way on keeper but think Fergie will keep with Kuszczak unfortunately


James_WrittenOff: Typical that by the time i have learned to spell his name, his OT career looks over!

Chris- Can They Score: I still have to copy it from his wikipedia page! 


James_WrittenOff: It is sure to be compelling and nerve-wracking at the same time. Let's hope United can round off the season in style!


If you have made it this far then we are very appreciative of your efforts! 


Be sure to check our respective sites to see our predictions for Wembley and for more in-depth analysis of the game. Thank you to the excellent @TriciaRKG for the photos used.


Please leave any comments below and you can follow Chris on Twitter here

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Barcelona: Players,Tactics & Formation Analysis

Ahead of the Champions League Final on Saturday, I asked Mihir Hombalkar (@mihir_h) to look at Barcelona and assess their potential tactics and formation. 

Manchester United face Barcelona in what promises to be a mouth-watering Champions League final at Wembley on 28thMay. Pep Guardiola’s current Barca side are rightly considered to be one of the greatest footballing sides of all time. In Guardiola’s 3 years in charge of the Catalan giants, Barca have won 9 trophies and will be looking to make it 10 on 28thMay. Standing in their way is a United side which will be keen to show they have learnt their lessons from the 2-0 humbling in the 2009 final in Rome. United were written off by many at the start of the season but have proved critics wrong yet again by winning a record 19th Premier League crown and reaching their 3rd Champions League final in the last 4 years. Beating this current Barcelona side will surely rank amongst one of Sir Alex’s finest achievements with the United boss having claimed time and again that United’s European record should be better. So, what exactly are United up against, can they do it at Wembley?? 

The Barca Players

Led by arguably the finest player in the world at the moment Lionel Messi, the Barcelona side likely to play at Wembley could consist of as many as 8 players who have come through ‘La Masia’, the famed youth academy of Barcelona. With World cup winners like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield, Gerard Pique and skipper Carles Puyol in defence, the Barcelona side is solid in all departments. Messi will spearhead the attack and has scored 52 goals this season in all competitions, with 11 of those coming in the Champions League. Summer signing David Villa has added more potency to the attack line and has scored 22 goals in all competitions, while another ‘La Masia’ product Pedro has scored 21 goals in all competitions. Dani Alves, who joined Barca in the summer of 2008 has been a success at Right Back whilst chipping in with his share of goals and assists, while Javier Mascherano who joined from Liverpool in the summer has slowly settled in after some forgettable performances at the start of the season. Victor Valdes, whilst shaky at times is a good goalkeeper and has been the number 1 GK for years.Ibrahim Afellay, Bojan, Seydou Keita have played their part when needed and should start on the bench at Wembley. 

Barca's likely starting XI & Tactics at Wembley 


Subs: Ruben Mino, Mascherano, Thiago, Keita, Jeffren, Afellay, Bojan 

Barcelona's starting XI is unlikely to have any real surprises. Javier Mascherano, who started both the legs of the semi finals at Centre Back is expected to be start on the bench with Carles Puyol, who played as a Left Back then moving alongside Gerard Pique at the heart of defence. Eric Abidal, back in the side after a successful surgery on a liver tumor is expected to start at Left Back.Dani Alves loves bombing forward from Right Back and with Messi has formed a formidable partnership on Barca's right wing. Sergio Busquets will sit in front of the back 4, with Xavi and Iniesta, dictating play in midfield. The Catalan's style of 'possession football' has seen them garner praise from many. Barcelona have average 65% possession in all the games they have played so far this season. Xavi, who is the main architect of Barca's midfield averages over 100 passes a game. 

Lionel Messi will start on the right of a three man front line, with Pedro Rodriguez on the left and David Villa in the centre. However, all three can interchange positions and are difficult to pick up. Messi and Pedro like to cut inside while David Villa can drift wide. 


What United should do to beat Barca  

United have one of the best defence in Europe and defensively United will have to be on top. United's defensive form in Europe has been impressive as illustrated by the record 6 clean sheets they have kept away from Old Trafford. Patrice Evra and Ji Sung Park will have the most important task, of keeping Messi quiet. 

Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, who had forgettable games two years ago will have to maintain their impressive recent form in the center of midfield.. Antonio Valencia will be a real danger man for Barcelona, his pace and strength has troubled most defenders and United will need him to have a good game if they are to get past Barca. Barcelona's full backs also press high up the pitch in particular Dani Alves and United should look to make the most of the possession we get, something we didn't do 2 years ago in Rome. 

Barca's all out attacking style of play leaves them slightly weak at the back and United do have the resources to exploit it. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique struggle against strikers with pace and Javier Hernandez gave the former a torrid time when Mexico and Spain met in a friendly match in August and also ended up on the scoresheet. Finally, Wayne Rooney will have to have the game of his life if United hope to win. Rooney is likely to start behind Hernandez and will have to carry out both offensive and defensive duties. United will also have to be lethal in front of goal. 

Barcelona are the best footballing side in the world currently but are far from unbeatable and with United looking to make amends after their loss 2 years ago, its not often the best manager in the business gets it wrong twice. 

Please leave any comments below and feel free to follow Mihir on Twitter where he will also respond to any questions you may have.

Many thanks to Mihir for taking the time to put this post together.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Champions League Final Interview with Martin Lipton

Ahead of the Champions League Final at Wembley against Barcelona on Saturday, I caught up with Martin Lipton (The Mirror Chief Football Writer) to gauge his opinion on the teams, tactics and players.

At the start of the season, not many would have tipped United to make it to the final, what have you made of their European campaign this year?

It's been a slow-burner, no question. The group phase was dull beyond belief but the key is to do what you need to do - win your group - without expending too much effort or energy. In the knock-out you've got better and better. Marseille was a bit twitchy, Chelsea never really in doubt, Schalke a massacre both games. Now the real test....

Is it an advantage to United that the final will be staged at Wembley?

I don't think so, but not a disadvantage either. United will probably have the majority of fans but that would have been the case if the game had been played in the Nou Camp! The pitch, finally, is top-class and will make it a proper football match. It's not just Barca who can pass the ball, you know.

How impressed have you been with Barcelona this season?

They are an excellent side, beautiful in possession as they all feel comfortable on the ball but also formidable in the way they win it back by hunting as a pack. Also, with Villa up top rather than Ibrahimovic, they are more of a cohesive unit. Saying that, I can't believe they've ever played as well as they did in the first hour at Arsena last season, which was absolutely phenomenal.

Barcelona has been rated by some as the best side in history, what are your thoughts on this?

They're the best team - on the ball - that I've seen. Quite how that racks them up against the Real Madrid team that dominated, Ajax under Michels, Milan in their pomp under Sacchi and Capello, Liverpool under Paisley, Bayern when they were effectively Germany without Berti Vogts, is harder to say. I would pay to watch them. At the same time, I thought United against Chelsea to win the league were as good as I've seen them as well. 

How do you see United lining up? Rooney & Hernandez or just one up front and flood the midfield? Will they press high up the pitch or sit back? (Question via @Sleepy_Nik)

Think it would be tempting to go negative, go Valencia, Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs and Park across the middle with Rooney on his own up top. But that, I think, would lead to only one outcome - 2-0 Barca. Also, Rooney is at his best dropping off while Hernandez has been an utter revelation and the last thing Fergie will want is to lose wondering if he could've been more adventurous. Could be horrible if United can't get near the ball and Barca pass round them. But if they can play themselves and cause problems, it will be a very different game.


How much do you feel Sir Alex would have learned from the previous final in 2009 when they were outplayed and out-thought? How will this affect his tactics this time around?

What was so odd in Rome was that for the first 10 minutes there was only one side in it - and that was United. But once Eto'o scored I don't think you touched the ball again. Fergie will demand you get much, much tighter. One thing is that, without Ronaldo, you will have 11 all contributing to the team. CR7 was only interested in proving he was better than Messi and not in the job he was supposed to do. If Fletcher is properly fit he will have to consider leaving Carrick out so you have someone who can get in and amongst Iniesta and Xavi.  

Messi is lauded as the best player in the world, how do you assess his genius alongside all time greats such as Pele and Maradona? How will United deal with him on the night?

Messi has all of Maradona's talent but none of the nastiness and cynicism. All you can do is try to make him use his right and send him out wide into places where he can't hurt you. But you've got to accept that at some stage in the game he is likely to do something remarkable and you just hope it doesn't lead to a goal. He is a remarkable player, all the more so given that he would've been lost to the game if he had not had all that human growth hormone pumped into him when he came to Barcelona from Rosario as a kid.

Dani Alves is an important player from right back, do you see him being as progressive as normal or will he have to rein in his attacking tendencies? (Question via @Sleepy_Nik)

Alves can only play one way, bombing on. He is a danger coming forward but leaves himself exposed as a consequence. Park can certainly take advantage as could Hernandez making in to out runs through the inside left (from United perspective) channel.

Who do you see as the key players on either side? How will they affect the outcome of the game?

The obvious, really. Messi, Iniesta and Xavi for Barca, because they're the one who make them tick. For United, much will depend, as ever, on how Vidic and Ferdinand defend. Then Valencia has to get at them on the right, Rooney needs to be influential and Chicarito will have to make those runs for the one time the ball gets there. 

How would you compare Guardiola and Ferguson in relation to management styles?

I think they're actually quite similar in terms of how they want the game played. Both are footballing romantics - in stark contrast to the cynical pragmatism of Mourinho for example - and want their team to play the right way. Of course, you could argue Fergie is better when he is more simple and that when he tries to be clever it often fails. And there is the reasonable argument that his two greatest nights, in Barcelona and Moscow, were achieved despite the decisions he made rather than because of them. Guardiola would be, I reckon, the perfect replacement when Fergie goes. He understands what it takes to run a big club and goes out of his way to avoid unnecessary controversy. 

Counter attack will be key to United's chances in the game, do you feel they have the personnel to cause Barcelona problems?

No doubt about that. Valencia can hurt whoever plays at left-back, Hernandez can cause real problems for the centre-halves, Rooney will revel in the space Barca might leave. But United have to win the ball back early, so that the transition takes place where it can hurt Barca. 

If United were to win, how would the team be remembered for their exploits this season?

Arguably - no scratch that, definitely -  given that this looked like a transition season, their greatest achievement. To win the 19th title and then beat the best footballing team on the planet, on the biggest stage, would be epoch-making and a truly defining moment in the history of a great, great club.  

Finally, what is your score prediction and how do you think the game will pan out?

Having said all that, and despite wanting United to win, I think it will be very hard for them to do so. Barca are a fabulous side and if I had to put money on it, I'd go 2-1 to them. Then again, I thought you'd smash them in Rome. And I'm the worst tipster of all time!

A big thank you to Martin for taking the time to answer my questions. Please leave any comments below and you can always contact Martin on Twitter to discuss any issues that have arisen.

Friday, 20 May 2011

United vs Blackpool Premier League Preview

Introduction
Manchester United round off their historic league campaign on Sunday with a fixture against relegation threatened Blackpool at Old Trafford. With the Premier League trophy to be handed over after the game, the stadium will be packed to the rafters and in somewhat of a party spirit to see the lads lift the club's 19th league championship.

All eyes will be on the side that Sir Alex Ferguson picks on Sunday with under a week to go until the Champions League Final at Wembley. With the Youth Cup Final second leg on Monday, there is little chance of any youngsters being selected so I would expect a similar line up to the game against Schalke a few weeks ago. It would be a surprise to see any of the expected eleven for Wembley to start so a game for Owen, Fletcher, Smalling, Evans and Berbatov amongst others is likely.

The game on Sunday may also bring down the curtain on the league career of Paul Scholes. The midfield maestro is widely tipped to retire at the end of the season although a final bow is planned for his testimonial in August. What you can be sure about is that when he finally announces the decision to hang up his boots, it will be without fanfare or fuss which is so typical of the unassuming, private person we have come to respect and admire. His place in United history is secure and he will rank as one of the all-time greats.

The Opposition
Ian Holloway's side have been a welcome addition to the Premier League this season with their brand of exciting football winning them many fans across the country. They have won the same number of away games as the newly crowned Champions this season and overall have the eighth best record on their travels which is a remarkable achievement for a club whose transfer budget was only £10 million.

They currently occupy the last of the relegation places but gave themselves a chance of staying up with a dramatic 4-3 victory over Bolton in their last game. This game seemed to accurately sum up their season - they are a threat going forward but are increasingly vulnerable when the opposition have the ball. This is encapsulated in their goals scored and conceded statistics. They have scored 53 league goals which is the 9th best in the table but have the worst defensive record with 74 conceded and have let in 14 of these in the last five minutes of play.

They have 39 points from their 37 games. Their leading scorer is D J Campbell with 13 while talisman Charlie Adam has weighed in with 12 from the heart of the midfield.

Their Premier League status relies on a number of factors and they could even lose on Sunday and still stay up. Below is a summary of their plight:

BLACKPOOL WILL STAY UP IF... (courtesy of BBC Sport website)
  • They win and Blackburn draw with Wolves
  • They win and Birmingham fail to win, given that Wolves are playing Blackburn (so cannot both exceed 41 points)
  • They win and Wigan fail to better their result by two or more goals
  • They draw, Wigan fail to win and Birmingham lose
  • They lose, Wigan lose by a similar or greater margin, and Birmingham lose by a bigger margin than Blackpool
Ian Holloway emerges from this season with a great deal of credit for the way he has handled himself and the club through some tough moments. He has stayed true to his philosophy of attacking football in the face of adversity and for this he deserves reward. What is certain is that neutral observers will be in the Seasiders corner on Sunday and would much prefer others to drop into the second tier of English football than Holloway's men.

United

With the Champions League Final on the horizon there is little doubt that the side that takes the field on Sunday will bear little resemblance to the one that will try to bring home the club's 4th European Cup trophy.

After Tomas Kuczszak's eccentric display last week against Blackburn, I was going to plump for a league debut for Anders Lindegaard. With both of United's goalkeepers looking likely to depart the club in the summer, this would have been a chance for the Dane to stake a claim to a first team spot next season. With the increasing likelihood of David De Gea joining the Reds shortly, there will be an air of uncertainty between the posts as the new season kicks off as following in the footsteps of a legend like Van der Sar would be daunting for anyone let alone a 20 year old Spaniard. In his brief appearances so far, Lindegaard has shown he is able to command his box and looks decent with both the ball at his feet. However, the manager has confirmed that the legendary Dutchman will make his final league appearance on Sunday. I would expect that he will be made captain for the day and I am sure he will be desperate to call time on his league career with a clean sheet and a victory.

My defensive choices are fairly self explanatory. Wes Brown has had a difficult season with injuries and the form of others meaning he has started only 4 times in the Premier League and just 10 overall. Moving into the twilight of his career, there is a fair chance he will seek pastures new in the summer. He has been a fine servant to United over the years after coming to prominence in the treble winning season of 1999. His career has been plagued by serious injury but he has still been able to amass 362 appearances for the club and the manager once described him as the best natural defender in the country. Chris Smalling has had a terrific debut season at the club displaying a calm authority that belies his tender years and experience. He will continue to improve in seasons to come under the watchful gaze of Ferdinand and Vidic before taking his place as a mainstay of the side. Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra make up the remainder of the back four at centre and left back respectively.

The midfield area is somewhat more difficult to predict. Darren Fletcher needs to get a full ninety minutes under his belt ahead of Wembley so I have chosen him to play a role from the right with licence to drop back into the centre when required. My central two are Anderson and Scholes. On the left wing I have plumped for Gabriel Obertan who has endured a poor season with just three league starts under his belt. He is another player who is tipped to exit Old Trafford this summer and I feel this could be the best move to try to resurrect his career away from the pressure at United.

Up front, I will pick Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov. The Englishman deserves a game after waiting patiently on the sidelines over recent weeks. He is another player who may well bid farewell to the club in the summer. The Bulgarian will be looking to find the net so that he can win the leading scorer trophy ahead of Tevez.

Scoreline Prediction
Despite all the changes, the United side still looks strong enough to preserve their wonderful home record this season. It promises to be a strange afternoon with the home crowd in joyous mood willing the celebrations to begin but the away end will have their ears to the radio with their fate in the hands of others.

I will go for a 2-0 home victory with goals from Berbatov and Scholes.

Winning league title number nineteen has been a wonderful achievement by all the players and staff. Once the celebrations have died down, all eyes will focus firmly on Wembley and the small matter of Barcelona. 

In the build up to the game, this blog will have an interview with Martin Lipton (Mirror Chief Football Writer), a web-chat discussing the game from both sides and an extensive preview will appear on Friday.

If you have any thoughts on the preview above, please leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter

Thursday, 12 May 2011

United vs Blackburn Rovers Premier League Preview


Introduction
Manchester United return to action on Saturday lunchtime as they strive for the single point that will see them crowned league champions for a record 19th time. Sir Alex has had a free week with which to prepare for this game as well as the impending Champions League Final with Barcelona. The team will no doubt still be basking in the glory of defeating closest rivals Chelsea last Sunday which has put them on the brink of their historic achievement.

I would expect the manager to select a relatively strong side on Saturday as the ideal scenario will see United crowned champions thus allowing a skeleton side to be chosen in the final game against Blackpool at Old Trafford next Sunday. Preparations for the final can then begin in earnest behind closed doors next week giving  the boss the luxury of almost two complete weeks with which to explain and practice the masterplan to defeat the La Liga champions.

The Opposition
Blackburn have had a mixed season with a haul of 39 points from 36 games. New owners Venky's dispensed with the services of manager Sam Allardyce in December 2010 barely a month after taking over the club. His assistant Steve Kean was put in caretaker charge before being given the job on a full time basis shortly afterwards.

Blackburn probably need another point to be safe from relegation with two games left. Their Achilles heel this season has been goalscoring which mirrors similar woes from last year. Their leading scorer in the league is Kalinic with five while United loan striker Diouf has six in all competitions but this includes a hat-trick in the League Cup against Norwich.

Their strength lies in defence where the likes of Samba, Nelsen, Robinson and Givet have all had decent seasons.

I would expect Blackburn to target our full back area with the likes of Pedersen and Emerton as well as the full backs launching crosses in for the likes of Roberts and Santa Cruz. As always, they will be a threat from set pieces yet resolute and tough to break down in defence.

Some statistics regarding our opposition:
  • Won 7 and lost 5 of 18 at home.
  • Won 1 of last 5 at home.
  • Won 1 of last 8 home and away.
  • Only scored 42 goals all season.
  • Of 16 games where opp scores first, won none and lost 14.
  • Record against top half is worst in the league: 3 wins and 3 defeats from 19.
  • Have worst second half record in the league - concede more than twice as many goals in 2nd half.
  • Have not lost when winning at half time.

United

With a point still needed, I am expecting a strong United side to face Blackburn at Ewood Park. Chris Smalling is likely to replace Ferdinand in defence bearing in mind the ex England captain's injury record in recent years. It is vital that he is 100% for Wembley. If fit, I would expect Evra to return at left back and O'Shea to start on the opposite side in a bid to assist against the home side's long balls. It is possible if Evra has not recovered, that the Irishman will switch sides with Wes Brown starting on the right.

With Ryan Giggs taking a well earned break after his exploits last Sunday, I will plump for Anderson to play alongside Carrick in the centre of midfield. Paul Scholes is another option but recent history shows that these two do not play well together. The concern would be Anderson's poor level of performance away from the comfort of Old Trafford. With this in mind, playing Gibson as part of a three is a possibility and this formation could see Scholes included ahead of Carrick. However, despite the logic of this, I think the boss will stick with 4-4-1-1. Out wide, I would expect a rest for Park which would see a return on the left for Nani with Valencia looking to build on his best performance last weekend since his return from injury when he tormented Ashley Cole.

Up front, I will go for Rooney and Berbatov with Hernández starting on the bench. The Bulgarian needs a game or two to increase sharpness and the Mexican can observe after a busy schedule following his move from Chivas last summer.

Scoreline Prediction
With the pressure mostly off both teams for obvious reasons, I would expect a low intensity match for once at Ewood Park. Clearly, both would settle for a draw but it is not in United's nature to sit back and play the game out. I, therefore predict a narrow 2-0 victory with goals from Berbatov and Nani. I cannot see how the home team will threaten us sufficiently to cause more than the odd flutter of worry.

If my prediction (or we gain just a point) comes to fruition then the seemingly inevitable title will be ours after a one year sabbatical at Stamford Bridge! All eyes will then turn to Wembley and the match up with Barcelona. Preparations will have been made by the management team to ensure that the squad are in peak shape for the 28th May with only the celebrations at Old Trafford after the Blackpool match to get in the way.

It promises to be yet another exciting conclusion for a club that tends to specialise in such occurrences. It would also be the perfect riposte to those critics who dared to suggest that the manager had lost his touch and that the squad was the weakest in recent memory. In fact, if two trophies are secured between now and the end of May, Sir Alex Ferguson may well be reflecting on one of the greatest achievements in the club's history.

Please leave any comments below or contact me via Twitter.

Monday, 9 May 2011

United vs Chelsea Post Match Thoughts PL May 2011


Manchester United have nine fingers on their treasured 19th League Championship following a commanding 2-1 defeat of nearest rivals Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday. A win for the away team would have brought them level on points and with a superior goal difference with just two matches left. As it was, they were blown away by a first half onslaught that combined pace, power and skill to which Chelsea had no answer.

United were given the perfect start with a goal from Javier Hernández after just 36 seconds. The Mexican kept his cool to slot past Cech with his first touch of the ball. The home side got their reward for almost total dominance mid-way through the half when Nemanja Vidic powered through a static Chelsea defence to head in a Giggs cross. Although the visitors enjoyed a more even share of possession as the half wore on, they rarely troubled the home team defence, superbly marshalled by Vidic, Ferdinand and Van der Sar. Chelsea were lucky to retain a full compliment of players after Ivanovic committed a hat trick of cautionable fouls yet was allowed to remain on the pitch by referee Webb.

The second half saw further Chelsea possession and the Old Trafford faithful were brought out of their comfort zone by Lampard's strike, deflecting a deep cross past Van der Sar. An equaliser would have been a travesty based on the gulf in class between the two sides and as Chelsea went searching for it, the gaps started to appear in their much pressured back line. Chance after chance was spurned as United kept the away side in the contest through a combination of wasteful finishing and last ditch defending.

The final whistle brought joyous scenes as the players realised that their quest for the holy grail was within touching distance. High up in the director's box, Sir Bobby Charlton applauded the modern day heroes with vigour and an appreciation for the effort and desire displayed before him.

The Reds need one point from an away trip to Blackburn (next Saturday) or a home game against Blackpool to be mathematically certain of lifting their trophy once more. 

Overall, it was an incredible statement of class from the team at Old Trafford yesterday. It would have been easy to sit back and absorb what Chelsea could muster in the hope that they failed to break down the well drilled back line. However, in true Manchester United style, Chelsea were rendered helpless by wave upon wave of attacks that demonstrated the flair and quality that so many thought was lacking from the class of 2010/11.

Here are a few talking points from the game on Sunday

Goal Analysis - Hernández
There is not too much to say about the opener really as it is clear why things developed as they did. Two passes (1 from Giggs, the other from Park) and a slight nick off the struggling Luiz set Hernández free. One thing that is noticeable as he approaches Cech, is how the goalkeeper makes a slight move to cover his far post which leaves an enticing gap on the near post as shown by the picture below. Perhaps Cech was anticipating where the ball was headed but it could hardly be described as an error. Bearing in mind the magnitude of the game and that it was his first touch, the way he slid the ball past Cech was wonderful and once more proved why he has emerged as the signing of the season.

X marks the spot where Hernández sees a small gap with Cech covering the far post
Goal Analysis - Vidic
As all United fans know, our prowess from corner kicks is regularly called into question. Although the goal came from this variation of set piece, it will go down as the second phase rather than as an original ball into the box. The interesting part about this goal is that it develops with Vidic (circled in below picture) struggling to get into his usual spot in the box. Whether he got delayed getting up there or the speed in which Giggs took the corner took him by surprise, I am not sure, but it certainly provides the key to the goal.

Chelsea mark up their men unaware of the advancing Vidic. Terry (stooping) is oblivious to the advancing Serb
The big Serb is then able to force his way unchallenged and unmarked toward goal as the cross from Giggs approaches. He has momentum in his favour as he guides the ball beyond Cech into the net.


Vidic steams in to power his header past Cech with Terry (on penalty spot) and Luiz (near post) helpless
In the first picture you can notice John Terry bending down slightly presumably wondering where his man Vidic actually is. By the time he realises, our captain has made a run behind him and left him for dead as the most advanced of the Chelsea defence (no 26 in picture above). It is a big mistake from the Chelsea skipper as he is guilty of ball watching and has completely switched off leading to the ultimate punishment.

"Defensive wingers" - Valencia and Park
Every member of the team yesterday played his part in the performance that led to the end result. Arguably the two "stand out" performers were the unsung Ji Sung Park and Antonio Valencia.

The selection of Park is often seen as a negative move in some respects as he can be employed to stifle his opposing full back and also assist his colleague on that side from a defensive point of view. This role seems to have evolved this year somewhat as he no longer stays as wide and is often seen drifting inside to help the centre of midfield with interceptions and the linking of play to the other flank. Yesterday without any doubt, was his finest and most complete display in a United shirt. Not only did he suppress the forward threat of Ivanovic, he was able to help O'Shea and later Evans with the attentions of Kalou. There are not too many players that could play this role as they have to have immense levels of energy to cover so much of the pitch and still remain effective long into the game. His value from an attacking sense was shown by his assist for the opener and a secondary one for the Vidic header as he laid the ball back into the path of Giggs. All of this goes to show just how vital a member of the squad he is for United as the boss can entrust a multitude of tasks upon his shoulders and know they will be carried out with that trademark effervescence and verve. 

You are going to need a gun to stop him Ashley!
On the right wing, Valencia gave his best performance of the season up against allegedly the World's best left back in Ashley Cole. I certainly cannot remember a time when the Englishman has looked so shell-shocked as he was yesterday. Time and time again, Valencia not only beat his man but left him trailing in his wake as his all round package of pace and power (clearly worked on during his long rehabilitation) won the duel. The Ecuadorian is another player blessed with a tremendous work ethic like his colleague on the other side. He can be relied on fully to supplement his full back from a defensive aspect and there were numerous examples where he was able to give Fabio the support to break up an attack before heading for the attacking half. Even Valencia's crossing, which I was critical of recently, improved and he would have added an assist to his list of credits had Hernández not headed over from the edge of the six yard box late on.

For the reasons outlined above, I would be loath to describe Park and Valencia as "defensive wingers" any longer. They clearly offer a great deal from a defensive point of view but the pace and energy means they can quickly switch to going on the offensive. I would say that it is safe to assume that these two have booked their Champions League places as such a skill-set will be a must against the Barcelona midfield who given time and space will cause havoc. With these two in place, it is likely that the lessons of the 2009 final will be learnt.  

One last thing I would like to mention about this dynamic duo is their similarity to Giggs and Beckham in the wide areas. During this era, it was Beckham who would tend to drift inside at times with Giggs hugging the touchline on the other side. The defensive qualities of these two was much heralded and they built up a great understanding with their full backs who were frequently Gary Neville and Denis Irwin amongst others. 

The current pecking order means that the player with the most assists this season is biding his time on the bench. Nani has had a fine season but although he offers arguably more from an attacking point of view than the current incumbents, his defensive play, whilst undeniably much improved, is not yet up to the same standard. I also feel that his unpredictability in attack may also count against him as although opponents will struggle to know what he will do next, frequently his colleagues are left in a similar situation.

Carrick & Giggs - midfield supremacy
These two carried on where they left off in the Champions League 2nd leg at Old Trafford as they eclipsed Chelsea in the centre of the park once again. My review of this game at the time mentions such words as "imperious", "towering", "poise" and "penetration" to describe their partnership and if I used the same again, I would not be far from the truth. Giggs appears to have found a new lease of life in his 38th year. Freed from the burden of tracking up and down the left wing as he has done with such majesty since 1991, he has re-invented himself as an all-round central midfielder who at the moment has few who can get near to his level of performance. Certainly the likes of Essien and Lampard will be thankful they do not have to face him every week as they were chasing shadows once again.

Michael Carrick looks to have matured into the player we all knew he could be. Yesterday was another example of his growing authority and made a mockery of Capello's decision to omit him from the last few England squads. He seems to have mastered the knack of intercepting while exuding the air of a sweeper in front of his back five. What was also noticeable was the range of passing looks like it is returning to his armoury. Where previously, he was derided by uneducated United fans for simple, safe passing and little else, in recent times, he has begun once more to unleash accurate long passes that invariably find their target.

Versatility once again on show
The injury to O'Shea that led to him being substituted at half time could have caused United significant disruption. Into the breech stepped Jonny Evans who once more demonstrated this squad's remarkable versatility. Although primarily a centre back, Evans plays regularly for his country in that position and showed he could adapt in a pressure cooker atmosphere. Late in the game, with Fábio making his customary exit, Chris Smalling was sent on at right back and seemed to thrive as we all knew he would. 

I looked at this area in more detail in my Chelsea Champions League First Leg review following Valencia's seamless switch to right back and reading it again shows what a flexible and varied squad we possess. Look around other leading teams and the same cannot be said. It is yet another vital area where we reign supreme over our rivals.

Barcelona at Wembley
With United so perilously close to achieving their true target of the 19th League Championship, a few eyes will undeniably glance towards the Champions League Final on the 28th of May. Following yesterday's performance, I would be very surprised to see too many changes by the time we meet Barcelona. Certainly Evra will take over at left back and Rafael and O'Shea will have their eyes on usurping Fábio on the other flank but otherwise the team and formation looks set. In some ways, yesterday could be seen as somewhat of a dress rehearsal for the real thing in just under three weeks time. Although the opposition will be far superior, the ability on display yesterday will need to be much in evidence against Barcelona. When the La Liga side have the ball (and it may well be for long periods of time), the United midfield will almost become a five with Rooney dropping deep to cover Busquets and Park and Valencia alive to attack from Alves and whoever they pick at left back. If they are able to nick the ball then the dynamic will rapidly change to a swift counter attack using the speed of Valencia, Rooney and Hernández against the occasional cumbersome Catalan back line.

To me, it is clear that we have to offer a threat up front and for this reason Hernández must play and be asked to run himself into the ground for the cause in an attempt to draw the likes of Pique and Puyol out of position. The way to beat Barcelona is to attack them as others have shown and by doing so, there is an inherent risk of being picked off by the quick feet of Xavi, Iniesta and company. If United go on the defensive by picking another midfielder such as Fletcher, then I can only see one winner as the ball will continue to be back in Barcelona's possession in the odd times that we win it. What is clear is that every one of this eleven must be fully rested as they will have to leave every last inch of effort on the Wembley turf for a chance to succeed. The use of substitutes depending on the position of the game will be crucial and with the injury situation all but clear, we now have the options to change the game either defensively or from an attacking point of view.

After a fantastic performance, the lads are all enjoying a well earned day off today. Ideally, picking up at least a point against Blackburn next Saturday is vital in terms of resting players for Wembley. I would then expect a skeleton squad to be picked for the final game of the season against Blackpool. You can be rest assured that the management team have the strength and conditioning department working over time to ensure the squad is in the best physical shape for the huge challenge that lies in wait at the end of May. Whatever happens, it will be a historic season but add the Champions League trophy to the haul and the Manchester United squad of 2010/11 can take their place as one of the very best in our illustrious club's hall of fame.

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