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Manchester United claimed a record breaking 19th Premier League title at the weekend to cement their status as the kingpins of British football. A topsy-turvy campaign eventually ended with the Old Trafford club hoisting the Premier League trophy in front of their delighted fans but attention now turns to Wembley on Saturday evening and the final of the Champions League.
Barcelona have also claimed their domestic league crown winning La Liga with four points to spare over bitter rivals Real Madrid in a season Lionel Messi walloped in 31 goals and David Villa 18. The Catalans have also had the luxury of resting key players for a longer period heading into Saturday night’s showdown at Wembley and remain the bookies favourites (evens at the time of writing) to claim Europe’s top footballing accolade.
So just what can Sir Alex Ferguson do to thwart the incessant attack of Villa, Pedro and Messi? Is it possible to blunt the midfield dynamism of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets? How can United breach a well drilled defence which has improved as the season has progressed with Pique and Valdes outstanding for the Camp Nou club?
The case for United
Sir Alex Ferguson has overseen a magnificent defensive campaign in this year’s Champions League with United conceding a paltry four goals en route to qualifying for the final. Nemanja Vidic has been in imperious form at the heart of United’s back four with Rio Ferdinand fitting in perfectly alongside the club Captain despite suffering a recurrence of niggling injuries.
Irrespective of the back four performances the Indian summer being enjoyed by goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar should give United fans cause for optimism in the Dutchman’s final game for the Old Trafford club.
Van der Sar has produced a string of terrific displays to help United claim the domestic league title but his calming influence on the United back four is much more important. Gone are the days of the constantly bawling Peter Schmeichel to be replaced by a just as stern but calmer Van der Sar. The Dutch international’s ability to come and claim crosses and corners as well as being the obligatory decent ‘shot-stopper’ will be of the utmost importance facing a devastating Barcelona attack.
United can defeat Barcelona if they follow the blue-print created by Jose Mourinho when in charge of Inter Milan last season. Pressing high up the pitch and harassing the Barcelona midfield is the best place to prevent the source of the Catalan’s attacks from materialising. In the likes of Darren Fletcher, Nani and Ji-Sung Park United have the legs to do the job whilst also supporting the front two.
Settling on Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez as his starting Champions League forward-line is probably the most pivotal decision made by Sir Alex Ferguson this season. Rooney was out of form earlier in the year until being deployed in a deeper lying role behind the Mexican which sparked the England international back into life. Hernandez is simply the signing of the season.
The Mexican has contributed 20 goals and led the line superbly belying his young age. The swiftness of his finishes has matched the speed at which Hernandez has built up a rapport with fellow striker Rooney and United have benefitted hugely.
Having the luxury of being able to leave the Premier League’s joint-top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, on the bench for much of their European campaign solidifies the immense talent and importance of Hernandez and Rooney’s partnership to United. The Old Trafford club will need both players at their peak to overcome the Barcelona challenge on Saturday evening.
The case against United
Pep Guardiola has overseen another tremendous season for Barcelona by claiming the La Liga title and keeping a resurgent Real Madrid at arm’s length including semi-final victory to setup Saturday’s Champions League showdown with Manchester United. History is on the Catalan’s side following their 2009 European Cup final win over United in Rome in which Lionel Messi scored the second and decisive goal in a 2-0 victory.
Messi has been in irresistible form in Europe this season, leading his side in goals and contributing hugely in the build-up play to the majority of Barca’s goals. The fact defences have doubled up on the diminutive Argentinean has allowed the likes of Pedro and David Villa to blossom in a deadly three pronged attack.
Barcelona are the settled side heading into Saturday’s decider with the first eleven virtually picking itself should all players be fit and ready. United have decisions to make about their midfield quartet with Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Nani, Valencia, Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park battling it out for the four starting berths. The Catalans wrapped up their domestic title a few weeks before United claimed the Premier League suggesting Barca will certainly be the fresher side ahead of the Wembley showpiece.
The form of Xavi and Iniesta has proven a huge fillip to Guardiola’s side with high quality of Barcelona’s play emanating from the midfield duo.
The return of Eric Abidal to the Barca first team squad following surgery earlier in the campaign should not be underestimated. The French international came on as a substitute to an emotional welcome from the Camp Nou for the final minutes of Barcelona’s second leg semi final win over Real Madrid. The sight of Abidal being thrown in air by his team mates following that memorable win has given the Catalan’s an emotional boost heading into the Champions League final.
Much of the talk about Barcelona usually centres on the skill of Messi or the ‘Tiki-Taka’ style of football regularly produced by the Spanish Champions. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes rarely attracts such headlines but the goalkeeper’s form has been hugely impressive in Barca’s march to the final. The form of Real Madrid’s Iker Casillas is the only reason Valdes has failed to pick up multiple international caps and the Barca net-minder’s performance at Wembley will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the final.
The 2011 Wembley Champions League final has all the ingredients necessary for a classic encounter. Two attack minded teams, both squads bursting with world class talent and the perfect setting on the hallowed Wembley playing surface to produce a Champions League final to remember.
I fully expect a repeat of the 2009 decider between the sides in Rome with United putting in a decent performance and dominating possession for a time but I just cannot see the Premier League Champions usurping one of the best Barcelona teams ever produced. Spearheaded by the irrepressible Messi, Barcelona will win the 2011 Champions League trophy to complete an historic double, further cementing their status as the best club side on the planet.
• If Manchester United triumph at Wembley it will be the third time they have won the European Cup without losing a match
• Barcelona are the top scorers in this season’s competition with a total of 27 goals scored heading into the decider at an average of 2.25 per game. Manchester United have netted 18 times at an average of 1.5 per game
• United’s Ryan Giggs and Barcelona’s Andreas Iniesta top the goal assists chart with 4 each ahead of this weekend’s final
• Lionel Messi is Barcelona’s top Champions League scorer with 11 and is also the most fouled player in this year’s tournament (30 times)
• Sir Alex Ferguson will become only the second British manager to win the European Cup / Champions League 3 times if United win no Saturday night. Liverpool’s Bob Paisley is the other manager.