A rematch and a chance to avenge their 2009 Champions League final defeat for Manchester United; an opportunity to cement three Champions League triumphs in five years for Barcelona. The game is the pinnacle of European football and considering the two teams’ campaigns, it is potentially the best fixture to round what has been an invigorating year of football across Europe.
In footballing terms, United were completely outdone in Rome - the 2-0 scoreline does not suggest a thrashing by any means, but watching the game, the Premier League outfit were outclassed in every area - especially through the centre of midfield. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta ran the show and were instrumental to the Catalans’ triumph. Michael Carrick and Anderson may as well have sat the game out, such was their effect on proceedings as the Spaniards marauded through the centre of the park. It’s common belief that to stop Barcelona, you must stop Xavi and Iniesta - much easier said than done: the sheer number of passes the two put together defies belief. The presence of Darren Fletcher may be integral (if he is deemed fit to play). He was a notable absentee in Rome after receiving a red card in the semi final, he is United’s only defensive midfielder (bar Owen Hargreaves; no need to explain further) and someone guarding the back line could stem the flow of Xavi and Iniesta and also track Lionel Messi’s runs if Guardiola deploys him as a Trequartista.
And what about Messi? While waxing lyrical over the creative masters in the centre of the park, the diminutive Argentine was almost overlooked in their favour as Barcelona’s greatest asset. How can Manchester United stop him? Man marking him will just leave a space that will be exploited by another player. Zonal marking may be of more use, but that means that the mobile Barcelona forward line can attack one area as a unit. A cross of the two marking styles may be in order - with one player elected to stick to Messi in each area of the pitch (i.e. if he’s down the right, Patrice Evra will man mark him there, if through the centre, the job falls to Fletcher, etc.). On the premise that works, which, seeing as I just thought of it, it probably won’t, this deals only with the problem of Messi. David Villa and Pedro together have 39 goals and 19 assists between them this year and they represent massive threats for United.
So far, I’ve only really focussed on Barcelona and on how Manchester United can stifle them, with little consideration of the Mancunian’s potential to dominate the game. That’s because it will be on Sir Alex Ferguson’s men to stop Pep Guardiola’s side - it can be taken as a given that Barcelona will dominate possession and the general proceedings, but there is much that United can learn from Arsenal. When the Catalans faced Arsenal in the second round, they were dangerously close to being knocked out, after having lost in the first leg and been close to an aggregate loss in the Nou Camp (before Robin van Persie’s dismissal). In the first leg, Arsenal were dogged, chasing the ball in the final third but being completely contented with Barcelona keeping it in the middle of the park. They played on the counter attack, but most importantly, they had the visitors in catching distance going into the final 20 minutes, as they began to tire. This has been a common trend when teams play against Barcelona - though it is possible that they will dig deeper with taking the significance of the occasion into account and not allow themselves to slip - but if United are level or only a goal down around the 70 minute mark, the time may come to introduce Chicharito (who looks set to start on the bench) and really have a go at Barcelona.
And the Premier League champions pose a big threat on the counter attack, with the likes of Nani, Rooney and Valencia. This United looks like it will have less naivety then their 2009 counterparts, who tried to beat Barça at their own game. In terms of personnel, this side is much weaker than the one of 2009, but that may mean that they are more suited to fighting Barcelona away. If they line up in a like-for-like 4-3-3, built for counter attacking, they have a better chance. This means leaving out Chicharito and playing Park, Fletcher and Carrick as a midfield three. For all this talk of United’s improvement, one must acknowledge the improvements of Barcelona, too. The likes of Messi, Pedro and Iniesta have all grown as players (though not physically) in the last two years, while they have brought in David Villa who has been prolific over the last few season, the final weeks of the season notwithstanding. Then there is the back four. In Rome, three of Barcelona’s first choice back four were absent, meaning Yaya Touré and Gerard Piqué were the centre-half pairing, with Carles Puyol at right back and an ageing Sylvinho at left back. This year, they look like they will have their first choice back line (Abidal-Puyol-Piqué-Alves), not to mention the developments of Sergio Busquets and Piqué since then, despite both of them having started.
United have a mammoth task on their hands. If they take down this Barcelona team, they will join the pantheon of Manchester United legends, but they must take down possibly the greatest side ever assembled. There is a simple reason why Barcelona are the pre-game favourites: they are a far, far better team. But United definitely have enough about them to win in 90 minute contest. Personally, I am backing Barcelona to win comfortably. I think they will have too much quality for Manchester United, but we’ve all seen Sir Alex pull off miracles - the 1999 final in Barcelona for one. It will make for fascinating viewing.