LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 24 : A general view of Wembley Stadium as preparations continue for the Champions League Final, May 24, 2011 in London, England. The UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC will be held at Wembley stadium on May 28. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
On Saturday evening, the two most successful sides in Europe over the past decade, FC Barcelona and Manchester United, will contest this year’s UEFA Champions League final. It’s the new edition of 2009’s final in Rome, where FC Barcelona were crowned Champions of Europe for a third time in their history, at the expense of the Red Devils.
Just as it was the case in 2009, both sides will enter the pitch as the winners of their respective leagues. But oddly enough, this time the fortunes have slightly reversed. In 2009, Manchester United completed a league hat-trick of their own (FC Barcelona clinched their third title a fortnight ago), whereas FC Barcelona just reclaimed the summit of Spanish football. This year, it’s Manchester United that retrieved the top spot in the English top flight from Chelsea FC. However, the core of both teams largely remained the same. The most notable absentee, one-time Red Devil Cristiano Ronaldo.
Analyzing both squads and one will be hard-pressed to find any significant changes aside from the aforementioned Pichichi winner. Manchester United has substituted the directness and goal-scoring exploits of CR7 for the wing-services of Antonio Valencia/Nani and Mexican boy wonder, Javier Hernandez. In season one after Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney shouldered the majority of the goal-scoring burden, the following campaign however saw his performance rapidly decline. For a large part of the current season the white Pele was largely anonymous.
Some argue it was due to burn out, others assumed he already peaked, and then there were his off-field problems. At one point he even submitted a written transfer request. Nevertheless his performances improved just in time for the most crucial part of the season. His rise in form coincided with the return of Antonio Valencia. Unlike the Portuguese goal-machine, the former Wigan player is less selfish and more in the mold of an old-fashioned winger.
If Sir Alex Ferguson decides to only field one striker, in order to load the midfield and stifle the trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, it’s almost guaranteed that Wayne Rooney will be allocated that slot. Subsequently, the Ecuadorian will be Manchester United’s main source of creativity down the flanks in addition to Ji-Sung Park’s industry and guile.
On the other hand, FC Barcelona will definitely play their tried and tested 4-3-3 system. While it almost cost them in excess of €100,000,000 to replace Samuel Eto’o, they appear to have found a viable candidate in David Villa. The Zlatan Ibrahimovic experiment a year prior didn’t work out. During a semi-final clash against his former employers, Inter Milan, the lanky Swede even failed to cover more distance that goal-keeper Victor Valdes.
Let’s be frank, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a domestic bully but a certified dud in international competitions. It’s no coincidence that his teams always fall short in Europe, whether it is Juventus Turin, Inter Milan, FC Barcelona or AC Milan, he is a major reason why his teams underperform. I dare to argue that a whole lot more was achievable for FC Barcelona in 2009/2010 if it wasn’t for the volatile character of Ibracadabra.
Anyways, don’t be surprised to witness the second coming of Fergie’s 2007/2008 team that made parking the bus fashionable. Over two legs, Manchester United pretty much laid the blueprint for Inter Milan’s defensive master class against the Catalans, defend deep and defend in numbers.
Nonetheless, this would be quite a risky tactic, especially in a one-off game. As Real Madrid’s first leg semi-final defeat highlighted, one sending-off or a goal is enough to disrupt the whole game plan. In 2010, Inter Milan could afford the luxury of doing so mostly because they entered the game with a two goal advantage.
Since the majority of FC Barcelona’s key players is fit and available, and Lionel Messi in the form of his career, it’ll take a cohesive team performance from Manchester United to defeat the Blaugrana. But once again Pep Guardiola has to operate a makeshift defense. Even though this time he has the services of Dani Alves at his disposal, the left-back position remains an issue.
Eric Abidal should be available but there’s a big question mark whether he can play for 90 minutes. Therefore it is more than likely that Carles Puyol will slot in as his deputy which would allocate the remaining center back position to Javier Mascherano. Déjà vu.
Just like in 2009, a world-class holding midfielder is required to play as makeshift center back while Carles Puyol has once again to occupy the full back position.
If repeats and déjà vu’s are anything to go by then FC Barcelona should win the UEFA Champions League for a fourth time.
1992 European Cup Final: FC Barcelona vs. U.C. Sampdoria
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