A tale of two trebles: Manchester United v Barcelona

By winning the Champions League on Wednesday evening Pep Guardiola could stand be chucked in the air safe in the knowledge that he had become the first manager in Spain to have won a treble that comprised of a league and European Cup double.

Even though they failed to retain the Champions League it’s still been a truly magnificent season for Manchester United too and while it may be considered something of a ‘poor man’s treble’, a treble they have won nonetheless.

So Barcelona are the kings of Europe for this season at least, but can it really be said that they have had the better of campaigns? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Domestically Superior

While Barcelona have been an irresistible force in La Liga this season, breaking records left, right and centre, Manchester United have gone about their business somewhat more quietly but just as effectively in the Premier League.

An overall points tally of 90 put pay to Liverpool’s impressive title charge and is a total that they have only surpassed once before in a 38 game season back in 1999/2000. Lest we forget it has been a draining season that has seen United exceed 65 games and as well as going off to Japan to win the World Club Championships, Ferguson’s side also won the Carling Cup and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup too.

Of course you can’t argue with Barcelona’s supremacy in Spain this season having comprehensively charged towards the league title, staving off the once prominent threat of Real Madrid along the way. Add the Copa Del Ray and of course the Champions League to the reckoning and when you bear in mind that this has been achieved with a pretty minute squad as well, it makes Barca’s achievements this season all the more remarkable.

Results against Rivals

It’s always a good idea to look at a club’s results against their closest and often bitter rivals as a decent benchmark for comparison and against the current top four teams in Spain, Barcelona have pretty much wiped the floor with the lot of them. Back in September Guardiola’s side smashed Atletico Madrid 6-1 and a couple of months later they travelled to a decent Sevilla outfit and beat them 3-0.

Despite narrowly losing to Atletico in the return meeting at Vicente Calderon, Barca brushed Sevilla aside at the Nou Camp and need I even mention their two meetings with Real Madrid? Well for those of you who may need reminding, a late surge in the first El Classico of the campaign saw the Catalans triumph 2-0 and in a performance of real zest and potency, Barca made a mockery of their fierce rivals by humiliating them at the Bernabeu 6-2.

In contrast Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez masterminded a double winning feat over Manchester United, embarrassing them in the process with a resounding 4-1 win at Old Trafford. While Sir Alex Ferguson’s team rallied to take Chelsea apart in January, a defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates in November didn’t bode well. Add to that a further couple of draws against both the aforementioned London clubs and Ferguson was left with just five points from a possible 18 against his closest adversaries for the title.

Defensive credibility

Despite their less than impressive showing the other night, I don’t think this one’s even a contest and while most of you would probably be forced to agree with me, the statistics do go some way to question my judgement. Yes while on paper Barcelona possess a somewhat weaker defensive unit than United, the La Liga champions have only conceded 34 league goals this season and can boast the best defensive record in Spain.

Although compare that to United and you begin to realise exactly why Sir Alex Ferguson has such a fervent case for defence. In England’s top flight United have conceded a mere 24 goals while on average in the Champions League they afforded their opposition just over half a goal every game since they began the ultimately unsuccessful defence of their crown back in September.

Let’s face it, no game in the Premier League is easy these days which demonstrates just how impressive Edwin van der Sar’s domestic clean-sheet record of 21 hours without conceding proved to be.

In Ferdinand and Vidic United have arguably the strongest centre-back partnership in the game at present although even young Jonny Evans has proved a more than capable replacement at numerous stages during the season. The form of Rafael and John O’Shea at right-back has forced Gary Neville out of the reckoning for the most part and while cutting a figure of inconsistency at times, Patrice Evra has been an ever-present at left-back.

Attacking style and flair

Sir Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola are clearly blessed with an embarrassment of riches when you look at their respective starting elevens. Littered with some of the finest footballers in the modern game, just a brief look at some of the attacking options both teams have almost brings you to salivation.

Barcelona have this extraordinary three pronged strike force of Messi, Henry and Eto’o while United look to Ronaldo, Rooney, Berbatov and Tevez as their primary attacking threat. But just listen to this. The Catalans, with that fearsome threesome at the forefront, have conjured up an astonishing 104 goals in La Liga this season with the aforementioned trio contributing 71 towards that tally alone.

While Manchester United are a fluid and at times breathtaking counter-attacking side, that fascinating front four I mentioned earlier have only mustered up 44 Premier League goals between them. Of course that’s not catastrophic by any stretch of the imagination but it doesn’t even come close to matching what Messi, Henry and Eto’o have achieved as a unit.

It would be easy to argue that the Premier League is a far tougher environment than La Liga and United have often opted for a far less attacking but effective outlook throughout the season but in my opinion you can’t take anything away from that Barcelona front line. As long as Guus Hiddink isn’t in sight, it’s pretty unstoppable.

Messi vs Ronaldo

It has been a fundamentally decent season for both Messi and Ronaldo and separating them is a difficult task but when you look at his goals and influence on the Champions League Final, the little Argentine takes it for me.

Yes while Ronaldo finished as the second top scorer in the Premier League and at times single handedly carried United to the Final of Europe’s premier club competition in Rome it was Messi who stole the show when it mattered most.

Messi’s performance was simply sublime the other night. A menace if you like as he glided past challenge after challenge, contributing a goal to his team’s cause too. At the other end of the pitch despite a surprising look of desire and determination, Ronaldo just couldn’t get his side back into the game however hard he was trying.

Throughout the season Messi has been the main focal point for Barcelona and with 38 goals and 16 assists, the World Player of the Year crown surely awaits.

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