I was there in 2009 at Stadio Olimpico. It was 0ne of the best experiences I have ever had as far as pre game fever goes – watching Barca fans singing on the Spanish Steps was surreal. And then the game. It’s all about moments. If Ronaldo’s free kick had gone in in the first few minutes – Valdes just managed to keep it out – the game would have been very different. It didn’t go in, and shortly thereafter Eto’o turned Vidic, scored and then United seemed to be lost. That said, hard as it may be to believe, Sir Alex went into the final having constructed one of his very few bad game plans for a massive match. Ronaldo himself said after the game that United had used bad tactics (yes, he is aggravating that way, but he was right). Leading up to the game, I was telling a friend of mine that I hoped Sir Alex didn’t play it safe and start Ronaldo at striker like he had done against Arsenal in the second semi final a week before to such devastating effect. Here was the flaw – he should have started Berbatov or Tevez at striker and kept Park on the bench. Sylvinho was starting at left back in place of the suspended Abidal and Yaya Toure, the holding midfielder was starting at center back because Puyol had to move to the right back slot since Alves was suspended – and Sir Alex didn’t go after that back line. He had Ronaldo – move him to the wing and Ronaldo would have destroyed Sylvinho. Since Yaya was at center back instead of holding midfield with Busquets, he wouldn’t have been able to help out on Ronaldo as much. Instead Sir Alex played Ronaldo down the middle where it was more crowded, where he wasn’t getting any service and where Busquets could help. Park didn’t bother Sylvinho and that was it. Without that United pressure that would have made Iniesta back track more, it was hard to then keep up with Barca in midfield.
So what happens tomorrow?
Putting aside moments of unlegislatable genius (read Messi or Iniesta or Giggs or Rooney), I believe that the game is going to be won based on how Michael Carrick plays. Hard to pin it on one player, but he is going to be the bellweather for how the midfield battle plays out. This is why. If Carrick doesn’t have time on the ball, he tends to have a hard time making his killer passes. That’s what happened last time. So, if he plays well, I believe it will be because United is able to beat the high press that the Barca front six put on whenever they turn the ball over in the opponent’s half of the field. If Carrick (read United) can start the first or second of three passes for United when they get the ball (and force Barca to then fall back), United will beat Barca because they have superior athletes and superior team speed and it will make Barca have to then come at least 60 yards down each time to beat United. Real Madrid used a variance of this length of field strategy during the second La Liga clasico this season – they hoofed it down the field and forced Barca to bring it 75 yards each time and pressed Barca from midfield. Then either get lucky with one of your forwards getting on the ball one on one with the Barca backline or get a turnover and attack with speed. I don’t think United should hoof it though because United does not have that in their DNA – to not try and play football. A modified approach is what I’m suggesting. Don’t panic and hoof the ball to Valencia or Chicharito at the earliest sign of pressure – make two safe passes to get it going at least 75% of the time. It’s a delicate balance though, because you also don’t want to turn the ball over in your half to Barca. That’s why it;s all about Carrick. He usually receives the ball first from the backline. If he can play the ball out to Giggs or Rooney then United is in business. If not, United has to really take advantage of their chances – and they were very profligate against Schalke which is scary. Barca won’t give them that many chances unless United is 2-0 up with 30 minutes to go.
Everyone has Barca as favorites and United the decided underdog. I beg to differ on how forgone the conclusion is. Barca may well win and may well put three past United. That said, this Barca team is nowhere near as good as the one that beat United. The best club team of all time – not by a long shot (read why later in the post). And United have a stronger team and a better lead striker going into the game. Let me break down the matchups.
The Barca backline – Barca might have a similar problem as last time as, reportedly, Puyol is going to play left back moving Mascherano to center back. Supposedly Guardiola is concerned about Abidal having only recently come back from surgery and that he won’t be ready to battle Valencia for 90 minutes. Valencia is a strong man, apart from being fast. Puyol absolutely shut Rooney down when he played at right back in 2009 – another reason United suffered since Ronaldo didn’t get many balls coming in from that wing. I don’t think Puyol will find it as easy against Valencia. Rooney loves the crossfield ball to an open Valencia who then gets to go one on one against left backs most of the time since the holding midfielder usually tries to stay close to Rooney, thus leaving Valencia in isolations. Puyol himself hasn’t had that many games under his belt in the last six weeks. Valencia should have a real chance at doing damage on this side. Alves may be under less pressure and so able to create havoc down the right side because Park is not as dangerous offensively – especially since he’s going to have to pay attention to Messi on the left and center. I feel sorry for Evra. Finally, neither Pique nor Mascherano have the speed to handle Chicharito. For all those who say this is the best team in the history of club football – puhlease. With that defense? Puyol is the only great defender in that lot. And, sorry, but if you remove Messi from that squad, you have Valencia 2009-2010. A wild card in United’s offense is if Giggs has time to join the attack against Barca’s backline. Neither Alves, nor Mascherano, can handle him on the wing. When Giggs goes down the left, Rooney will usually fade over to the left as well thus taking Mascherano and Busquets with him to that side. Which leaves Pique having to potentially deal with Chicharito in the middle. Pique is big, but Chicharito moves around very quickly and has surprising hops for a little guy. It’s going to be a lot different for Barca this time because they have a real out and out striker in Chicharito to deal with – not Ronaldo. Advantage: United
Midfield – United have their hands full. That’s obvious. I am going to be very interested to see how Messi and Rooney play. Will Messi float to the middle and drop off like he did in 2009 and act as a decoy? And will Rooney be forced to come deeper to help the midfield. As in 2009, I think this is going to be decided by how Iniesta plays. He was the Man of the Match for me in 2009, not Xavi. He set up the first goal by taking on three United players before laying off to Eto’o and thereafter he terrorized United with his pace (you don’t realize how quick he is with the ball till you see him in person – United could just never catch up with him on the ball) and control. He seemed to tire because of his on off injuries. But he had the same situation in 2009 and came through in a big way. I think United’s big concern is going to be if Giggs, in the playmaker role, plays like Barca 2009 as opposed to Chelsea 2011. I am very dubious of Giggs being able to succeed in the playmaker role against Barca because I don’t think he will be able to create as much time on the ball to make passes. He will be forced to dribble more and that will limit his effectiveness as a playmaker. The battle is less about how United defend Barca’s midfield and more about how United’s midfield keep possession once they get the ball – as I said at the top. Yes, Park Ji Sung will run and he will bother Messi, but I just don’t believe he will have as much of an impact on the outcome (again that’s assuming that Sir Alex plays a four man midfield with Rooney and Chicharito up front). Advantage: Barcelona.
United’s backline: Villa must be hoping that he can use his experience to get the better of whichever of the da Silva twins starts at right back. That will be absolutely huge because Evra, Vidic and Rio look up for this game. So will Messi float, drop back in the center like in 2009 or stay down the right side? I don’t think Barca can afford it this time, for a simple reason: no Eto’o and no Henry. I’m sure Rio and Vidic are ecstatic that they don’t have to face those two and Messi and instead get to face an off form Villa and Pedro. Henry literally broke Rio’s ankles in 2009 when Rio fell to the floor on an inside outside dummy, while Eto’o beat Vidic inside to score the first goal. This is where Iniesta has to help Messi get the job done. His speed and ability to run at defenders with the ball – which Xavi can’t really do – is why he is the one, and not Xavi, who Barca need against United’s superior foot speed. The wild card for Barca is Pedro – he is a clutch scorer. But, again, Vidic and Evra would rather face him than Eto’o. Advantage: United.
One note. Messi is not unstoppable. United may not stop him tomorrow. But the way you stop Messi is to put a speedy player on him and if you can, have that player pick him at midfield. Pepe was choking Messi before he was red carded. It’s why Guardiola didn’t have Messi going at Evra in 2009 after Evra shut him down in 2008. Messi does not like going up against pace in midfield. Speed gets neutralized when you get to the last 20 yards because that’s when you can’t get as close to him because of the fear of fouling close to or inside the box. When he gets to the last third down the right, force Messi to the outside and take away the give and go. You can only do that with a quick left back. That’s the best chance you have to stop him when he gets deep. If he is down the middle in the last third and is moving left, do not let him make the reverse pass to a diagonal run from Villa. Mourinho was playing Messi that way, and it was working. That’s when Barcelona resorted to that other technique they must teach at La Masia – acting. But enough about stopping Messi – theoretical exercises are easy on digital paper.
After all those words and analysis, it boils down to one question – will concentration, discipline, defending as a unit and speed beat total football and a genius footballer?
I see two possible scores – if Barca scores first, it will be 3-1 Barca. If United scores first, it will be United 2-1. First score wins….. Though I think that’s true, that is a bit of a waffle.
Here is what I feel. United is a team that has suffered a lot of criticism this year (I can’t say I didn’t pile on as well – my prediction before the season to my United friend was that United would win the Champions League but would struggle to finish third in the Premier League). Giggs has a scandal ongoing. It’s Edwin’s last game. They are still burning from Rome in 2009. It’s at Wembley where United won its first European title in 1968. Yes, Barca won its first European title at Wembley too. But there is nothing similar when you consider what that title meant to United after Busby’s Babes died in the Munich plane crash. United is going to die before they lose. They will fight to the end. And Barca has looked tired at the end of this year – Wenger himself made that point last week. That’s why Pep has tried to get them some rest by not playing the front six for the last two games. United will keep it close and then beat Barca in the last 20 minutes just like Arsenal did in the first leg of their matchup this year. They will play Barca just like they played them in 2008, with patience, discipline and with an opportunistic streak. Before the Champions League Final in 2009, the United end held up cards that spelled out “FOR SIR MATT”. While you could say Wembley 2011 is even more so for Sir Matt and the Munich crash victims, it’s actually FOR ROME 2009. I can’t wait. This is better than the last day of school.