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The stage is set for one truly wonderful team to ascend to heights attained never before. No Spanish side has ever done the treble in history. No side in the history of the Champions league has managed to successfully defend it.
Manchester United and Barcelona stand at the brink of imposing greatness. And while one will lift the trophy aloft amid a 73,000 capacity Stadio Olympico, the other will be inconsolable, despite winning the domestic league and a domestic cup. The stakes are high, but the anticipation and excitement in the air this time is much, much higher.
And who can blame the footballing world for it? Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry, Eto’o, Ronaldo, Rooney, Berbatov, Giggs, and Tevez—the list sounds more like a who’s who of European attacking talent.
And they will all be on display (for at least sometime, presumably) this Wednesday night on your television screen. Unless, of course, you are among the “chosen” few at the scene of action!
On the one side are a side who have scored more goals this season than many top clubs might have scored in three full seasons; a side with enchanting abilities and a newly found stomach for a fight. And on the other side are, well, Manchester United.
From a Barcelona viewpoint, it is probably more simple to work out a strategy. Choose a holding midfield player to partner Xavi and Iniesta, as they try and feed Eto’o, Henry, and Messi. And then, alongside Yaya Toure and Pique at the heart of defence will be the experienced pair of Puyol and Sylvinho playing as makeshift wingbacks.
Looking more closely, most of Barcelona’s phenomenal attacking flair is expected to start. However, the lack of match practice for Henry and Iniesta might just be a factor to keep a lookout for. That said, these are two colossal players who might just find the electric, big match atmosphere invigorating.
Among the others, Eto’o may need to make better use of the chances on offer than as has been his want recently. However, a goal here and his manager will say he was saving his best for the big night.
Talking of the best, Lionel Messi may just look at this night as the night to silence all critics of his big match temperament. A magnificent dribbler with excellent vision, the little Argentine has definitely been the player of the season so far. A relative late season dip can be set right on the night he calls his “biggest ever.”
At the heart of midfield, you encounter Euro 2008’s Player of the Tournament, Xavi. Expect him to pull the strings delicately all night, and also look out for his dilligent ball winning. With his creativity and energy, he is Barcelona’s engine and should stand them in good stead on the night.
And owing to suspension and injury troubles, either Sergio Busquets or Seydou Keita will start alongside the “Fab Five.” Though neither is expected to hog the next day’s headlines, the fact that they just miss out on a place in this Barca lineup speaks about their quality.
Defense, however, seems to be the sole source of trepidation for the Catalans. Gerard Pique lacks big match experience, Sylvinho (who might have to take on Cristiano Ronaldo) is 35 years old and both Puyol and Yaya Toure will probably be playing out of position.
As a right back, Puyol may not have Dani Alves’ attacking velocity, but he is probably a safer and more conservative bet for the position. Winner of UEFA’s “Best European Right-back” award in 2002, the 31-year-old Barca captain will be pivotal to his side’s defensive success.
With his energy, expect him to support Messi whenever required.
Though neither is an experienced centre back, both Toure and Pique are tall and imposing center-backs with good defensive attributes. This being a one-off game, they are not the worst combination you will see in big match football.
However, if United are in inspired mood, there are other central defenders (even in this Barcelona squad) you’d rather have.
Sylvinho is clearly the man Sir Alex will look to target.
With his wealth of experience, he will still need to pray that United don’t see too much of the ball. He is neither a legendary tackler nor the possessor of electrifying pace. However, if he can be tidy and avoid errors, Barca’s excellent work rate may just cover his limitations. Or better still, he may not be required.
Manchester United Preview
Facing Barcelona, will be the defending champions.
If Rio Ferdinand is 100 percent fit for the clash (don’t read too much into the gaffer’s comments on this; he will play), then one of the meanest defences in world football should prepare itself for the acid test. John O’Shea will be tidy as long as he isn’t left one on one with Iniesta, Messi, Henry et al.
United’s central defensive partnership remain the key to glory in Rome for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. They have had another fabulous season on the whole, but both Ferdinand and Vidic will know that they will have to play their A-game, come Wednesday night.
Expect them to have a very busy night with lots of crosses to head away, many blocks to be made and some last ditch tackling having to be timed to perfection.
Patrice Evra, who has overcome an uncharacteristic spell of poor form this season (into which too much was read), will have to be at his inspired best against Lionel Messi. He has the pace, but positioning and guts will also be required against the maroon and red army.
The selection of the rest of the side, however, remains open to the manager’s fancy. Though a strategy of preventing a Barcelona goal for as long as possible, and hoping for a quick break or set piece to win United their goal and trophy may appeal to a lot of people, I am not one of them.
I would instead go in with a conventional 4-4-2 with Wayne Rooney upfront. If Barca go ahead, playing two strikers helps. And if United go ahead, looking for the game breaking second goal still helps (as Chelsea realized against a ten man Barcelona side at the Bridge).
With a central midfield of Carrick and Anderson, the defence gets adequate protection with these tough tackling midfielders playing in front of them. And with the ball, they have the ability to anchor the attacking ship efficiently.
If Anderson is told to play a restricted role without too much longitudinal scope, and Carrick plays his usual deep role to perfection, then United may not need to play another thirty year old central midfielder (one of Giggs and Scholes) to help out. What with Rooney and (yes!) Tevez also helping out centrally.
On the wings, I’d have Ronaldo and Park. With Anderson helping out Evra whenever needed, I’d have Park on the right to help O’Shea. However, Ronaldo may fancy his chances against Sylvinho and Messi may start to run rings around Evra; so the option of interchanging flanks is always there.
Expect Park to make use of all three of his lungs during this contest, but it is Ronaldo who will need to have a good outing. Against a makeshift Barcelona side, you will expect him to do well but a lack of possession may just frustrate him. If he keeps his calm and also a high morale, he might still just keep his Ballon D’Or too.
Upfront, and literally all over the park, I’d have Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney.
To a Barcelona defence structured only for this game, the duo’s zest and quality should prove a stern test. Both quick and lethal on the counter, United should go in with both of them and take Barcelona by surprise just as they did Avram Grant’s Chelsea a year ago. Both extremely willing to help back, their work rates will be a huge fillip.
And when you need to make full use of the chances that come your way, playing two strikers doesn’t really hurt.
Playing Rooney out wide may seem tempting to Sir Alex and if he is convinced by that, then the No. 10 should swap roles with Ronaldo. Playing Giggs or Scholes instead of Tevez may be the expected roll of the dice, but expect the unexpected from Sir Alex.
Finally, one hopes both sides are at their best and the deserving European Champion prevails. My heart says it will be United, but my instinct points to Barcelona.
And my brain is all fuzzy…