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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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