Not only are Barcelona the best club football team in Europe, they also possess the nucleus of the side that is the best international side in Europe and the world.
As such, it’s fairly straightforward to expect a straight comparison of Barcelona’s starting XI with any other team’s first XI to be weighed in Barcelona’s favour. But what if we were to look at the playing squad as a whole? Despite paying the second-highest wages in club football, Barcelona have a small squad that has been over-reliant on their key players. How do their ‘reserves’, or their second XI, stack up?
On the other hand, Manchester United’s chances in the Premier League (and in Europe) have been routinely written off at the start of each season by journalists who review United’s starting XI and find it wanting (either because some players are potentially leaving, getting too old or both). And yet this team has won four league titles in five years, has reached it’s third Champions League final in 4 years and despite being regularly outmatched on paper, has proven that the team is greater than any individual, especially if that team is built in the mould of Sir Alex Ferguson.
So which team is genuinely better – Barcelona or Manchester United? And which team has the better squad? Let’s compare the two and see how they stack up.
Barcelona v Manchester United (First XIs)
Alves – Pique – Puyol – Abidal
Xavi – Busquets – Iniesta
Pedro – Messi – Villa
Van der Sar
Fabio, Rio, Vidic, Evra
Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park
United are a match for Barcelona in defence except for the relatively inexperienced Fabio at right-back (and even with Rafael / O’Shea at that spot it would stay the weakest link), which is more or less expected when you consider United’s defensive record in the last few years despite not enjoying the levels of possession that Barcelona have.
However with Busquets quite adept at dropping back to anchor the defence when the full backs and center backs attack, Barcelona have a flexible enough defensive system to take of most problems (and this is partially why United are so interested in signing Varane, who can sit in front of the defence as well as play center-back).
It’s in midfield that the battle is definitively tilted in Barcelona’s favour, at least if the ball is consistently played through the middle of the pitch. With Iniesta providing the attacking impetus, Xavi the creative thrust and Busquets the metronomic passing that puts the opposition to sleep, United will need more than just Carrick and Giggs to counter-act. There’s talk that Fletcher may be started in midfield but it’s unlikely that Ferguson won’t pick Park, who can cut in and provide cover in midfield when needed.
Valencia’s pace on the right will be a key factor for United as well as Rooney and Giggs alternatively floating to the left flank to provide extra width. But whatever personnel United play, they don’t have the players to match Barcelona at the possession game so they will look to contain and disrupt, or at least stretch the game to the flanks where Barcelona are on a more equal footing than central midfield.
Up front, there’s no stopping Messi, but you should not discount the excellent first season Chicharito has had or the resurgence in form of Wayne Rooney. As has been emphasised so often this season, what United lack in fantasy they make up for in team-play, and that’s evident in their attacking play. While Pedro, Messi and Villa will be tough for United to deal with, Rooney and Chicharito will ensure that Puyol and Pique don’t have the liberty to push forward and join the attack. How Chicharito plays, especially against Pique, may be the decisive battle of the game for United.
Barcelona v Manchester United (Second XIs)
Adriano – Fontas – Mascherano – Maxwell
Thiago – dos Santos – Keita
Jeffren – Bojan – Afellay
Rafael, Smalling, Evans, O’Shea
Fletcher, Scholes, Anderson, Nani
This is where it gets interesting. United have arguably the more experienced forward line as well as the better midfield, while in defence both sides have their flaws. If these two teams were to play tomorrow, you’d back United to win purely because this combination of United players has far more match experience as well as the experience of playing together compared to their Barcelona counterparts.
There’s no denying Barcelona’s talent, even in their second string, but they lack the quality / consistency to play in the same style as their first XI, whereas while United’s second XI has the experience to compete at the top level.
Barcelona and Manchester United have taken two different approaches to conquering domestic and European football in the last 5 years. Barcelona, fueled by world-class youth players coming through their academy and brilliant managers in charge, have focused on building the best football starting XI. Manchester United, drawing on experience and mental toughness, have forged the most consistent squad in club football.
As the best two teams in Europe get ready to meet in little over a week’s time, it’s important to remember that this not only about determining the best club in football, but also about celebrating the amazing success these two teams have had in the last five years. Enjoy the game, read the rest of our Champions League final coverage and make sure to join in the chat during the match on our Barcelona v Manchester United live blog.