This Saturday, the world’s premier club soccer competition comes to an end, as Spanish champions Barcelona meet English champions Manchester United at historic Wembley Stadium in London. This is a rematch of the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, where Pep Guardiola’s men thoroughly outclassed Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in a 2-0 victory.
In this year’s version, Barcelona will be looking to cement their position as one of the best club sides in history, while Manchester United will be seeking revenge. Barcelona, deservingly, come in as heavy favorites, boasting the world’s best player Lionel Messi along with midfield maestros Xavi and Andres Iniesta. In order to beat the Catalans, Manchester United will have to play a tactically flawless game, and here, I will explain what Manchester United will need to do in order to beat Barcelona.
The 4-4-2 formation with Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez has paid off extensively for Sir Alex Ferguson in recent months, as it helped them take down Chelsea three times in the span of a month. However, the engine that makes Barcelona run is their midfield, and if they are given the time to make passes, then they will pick you apart. Thus, Ferguson will need to use a 4-5-1 formation to crowd Barcelona’s midfield out and not give them time on the ball. I know this is a major risk since Javier Hernandez has proven to be the signing of the season in recent months. But remember, Jose Mourinho was able to beat Barcelona with Inter Milan because he put constant pressure on their midfield.
Two defensive midfielders would be the best way for the Red Devils to disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm. The question is: who will those 2 players be? Michael Carrick has had a revival this season, and he rarely seems to be out of position, which is why I would choose him. Darren Fletcher has been unfit for most of this season, and Anderson is a major gamble. If I were Sir Alex, I would choose John O’Shea. He is extremely aggressive and sound defensively.
Employing two defensive midfielders will also help Sir Alex’s men contain Messi. Messi, under Guardiola, has been given the freedom to drift from side to side. No longer is he a one-trick pony, who used to cut in from the right and shoot with his golden left foot. Messi has taken on more of a playmaking role. As a result, I think having a man shadow Messi will take a great deal of pressure off of Ferdinand and Vidic. If Carrick is able to stick to his traditional role of defensive midfielder, John O’Shea will be able to roam with Messi.
It cannot be emphasized enough just how important this is. Vidic and Ferdinand are both big fellows, and they will have difficulty dealing with Messi’s speed and skill, Vidic especially. With O’Shea shadowing Messi, it lowers the likelihood of either Ferdinand or Vidic getting an early yellow card in the game.
Obviously, Manchester United’s main goal will be to contain Barcelona in the final third. It is imperative that Manchester United do not get out of position, and they maintain a solid line. If they are running all over the place chasing Barca, then the game will be over in the first half. That is what Mourinho drilled into his Inter squad, and it paid tremendous dividends. Each player will need to be disciplined and keep position because that will enable them to catch the Spaniards on the counter.
Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valenica, and Ji-Sung Park will be the three players in the center of the park for Ferguson. Giggs will have to use his sublime skill and vision to find Rooney, when the Red Devils get the ball from the Catalans. He will need to get it past Sergio Busquets, a player whose ability to read the game is making him one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. Ferguson, I believe, will also need to place Valencia on the left side of the pitch so that he comes up against Dani Alves. Dani Alves is the definition of an attacking fullback, modeled after Roberto Carlos, and he is always in the final third of the pitch for Barcelona. If Manchester United get the ball from Barca, then they can take advantage of the space that Alves will undoubtedly have left unaccounted for on the left side of the pitch.
Park is tireless with a great deal of pace. He can help make the Barca midfield make a pass before they really want to. Additionally, he is always at the right place at the right time, and he may be able to take advantage of Eric Abidal’s lack of match fitness in recent months. In essence, these two wingers need expand the pitch for Manchester United and be ready to bomb down, so that they can receive the ball from Giggs and find Rooney in the box.
To me, the most important thing Manchester must not do is to concede an early goal. If you recall the 2009 final, they were in very good shape for the first 10 minutes, but thanks to some poor defending, Samuel Eto’o was able to weave through the defense and score for Barcelona. After that Barcelona were able to establish a rhythm, and Manchester United had difficulty even string a couple of passes together. If they can contain Barca for the first 25 minutes, I believe that will give them the confidence necessary to catch Barcelona on the break.
With this being said, I still see Barcelona prevailing with a 2-1 victory. Their level of skill is unparalleled, and I expect that to carry them through. Don’t get me wrong, this game will be much closer than the 2009 final, as Sir Alex has learned his lesson, but the trophy known as ‘Big Ears’ will be returning to the Camp Nou this year.