Football fans are in for a treat as Barcelona and Manchester United, the two best clubs in the world right now, are set to clash in the Champions League final May 28th in the legendary Wembley Stadium.
After a four-game stretch of ugly, heated, and controversial clásicos against arch-rivals Real Madrid, FC Barcelona is positioned to take home the most coveted trophy in club football for the second time in three years, and third in five.
Standing in their way—as in 2009 when they last won the European title—is Premier League-leading Manchester United. The Red Devils are looking for revenge, and FC Barcelona is looking to cement their place amongst the greatest sides of all time.
Let’s get down to business. Both squads will likely start most of the same men that faced off two years ago. For Manchester United: Van der Sar, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Carrick, Anderson, Park, and Rooney. For FC Barcelona: Valdés, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, and Leo Messi.
Throw in likely starters Ryan Giggs for Manu U, and Dani Alves and Eric Abidal for Barcelona, and you’ve got essentially nine out of eleven preferred men on each squad unchanged from two years ago.
The biggest change for Man U is the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, their best player in 2009 and the man who gave Valdés the most trouble in Rome.
For Barcelona, big strong strikers Henry and Eto’o have been replaced by feisty little guys Pedro and David Villa.
Most importantly, perhaps, both squads are led by the same men. The gum-chewing Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson is still very much in control in Manchester, and the smooth-talking Pep Guardiola is continuing a ridiculous string of titles in just his third year as manager of Barcelona.
In short, we can expect a similar match to what we saw in 2009. With largely the same personnel—and exactly the same footballing philosophy—on both sides of the ball, we’re previewing a true Champions League final rematch.
Considering that La Blaugrana soundly beat Manchester two years ago, one could say the Reds would need some major improvements to take down Barcelona this year. Wayne Rooney, despite a low goal tally in the Premiership, is playing the best team football of his career. Joining him up top is the Mexican sensation Chicharito, who has been absolutely lethal for United this year.
But apart from these players, it’s hard to find significant improvement over the 2009 squad. For Barcelona, Lionel Messi has taken his game up a couple of notches in the past two years, and is far and away the world’s best attacker. Victor Valdés in goal is better than ever, Busquets has become a mainstay in the midfield, and one could argue that both Pedro and Villa fit Barça’s scheme better than Eto’o or Henry.
In terms of personnel, thanks to these improvements, the absence of Cristiano for the Reds and the presence of Dani Alves for La Blaugrana, advantage: FC Barcelona.
Both clubs have continued to practice open, attacking football over the past two years. Manchester’s style is more physical, vertical, and direct, while Barcelona’s "tiki-taka" is still their modus operandi. By adhering to these philosophies and maintaining a core of players, both sides have dominated their domestic leagues since 2009, and earned another crack at European supremacy.
While Barcelona are the clear favorites on paper, how much do these boys have left in the tank? Manchester United hasn’t exactly been resting for the past two years, but thanks to international commitments, the Spanish side has way more mileage on their key men.
And while Pedro and Villa certainly fit "el pérfil" of Barcelona, Eto’o’s opener was a monumental goal, and important today for two reasons:
a. It was the type of goal that only Eto’o could score
b. It turned the tide of the match that, up until that point, had looked very good for Man U.
Will Barcelona struggle to score as they so often have lately? Will the massive number of minutes played over the past two years finally take its toll? I think not.
Pep will have his men completely prepared and supremely confident. From the start, FC Barcelona will look to dominate possession, and big-game players like Iniesta, Messi, and Villa, will play the best matches of their lives.
Culé’s: enjoy this game, because we may never be treated to such a spectacle again. Expect a vintage Barcelona performance to take home the club’s fourth Champions League title.
No matter what, this year’s final will be a joy to watch, and far from the putrid display of football put on by last year’s finalists Inter and Bayern. We’re in for an absolute cracker of a match, with speed, skill, and goals aplenty. Football will be played the way it ought to, and FC Barcelona will once again play it better than the rest.