Manchester United must overcome the mighty Barcelona if a fourth European Cup is to be hoisted high at Wembley. The majority think we’ll get hammered, and with good reason.
Harrowing experiences don’t come gentler than the 2009 final against Barcelona in Rome. Manchester United were simply put to sleep, as the thousands of Reds amassed on the Olimpico Stadium’s Curva Nord that night watched the holy triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi make our lads look like statues.
So, how do we beat the blighters this time? Having spoken to other fans, most views alternate between an attacking ‘fight fire with fire’ philosophy and a ‘circle the wagons, play five in midfield, and pray the 7th cavalry shows up and UEFA lets them play behind our back four’ approach.
Adding to the confusion is that United have hit their best form when playing a buccaneering 4-4-2, with Rooney dropping back to help the midfield when United are without the ball. Yet the Arsenal match on Sunday showed that against a team with a high level of technical ability, Hernandez can be left stranded while United struggle to win possession. And lest we forget, Barcelona’s technical ability appears on a different astral plane even to excellent sides like Arsenal and Real Madrid.
It seems unthinkable that Ferguson will start with two strikers against the Catalans, with the Little Pea likely to be kept in his pod until late doors. More feasible is a midfield utilising the nagging capabilities of Ji-Sung Park or Darren Fletcher.
Other interesting suggestions include the possible deployment of Rafael or Fabio in a central berth. Ferguson has briefly used the Brazilian terriers in this area of the pitch before, with varying results. Their rapidity and low centre of gravity indicate that they may be United’s best bet to track Messi, although a knack for picking up yellow cards suggests not.
A more positive sign is United’s recent European record. The team is yet to concede a goal away from home in this year’s competition, and have been beaten just twice away from Old Trafford since May 2007.
Ferguson’s tactics in Europe over the last five years have grown increasingly sophisticated. While he admits a flawed approach to the 2009 final, in which Manchester United opted to use Cristiano Ronaldo down the middle in an attempt to expose former United employee Gerard Pique’s perceived lack of pace on the turn, he rarely gets things wrong at the second attempt. Chelsea scraped past United 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in March’s league encounter, but a month later, Ferguson changed tack and stewarded two assured victories over the same foe in the Champions League. He will relish another crack at Barcelona after the tame surrender in Rome.
Ferguson will spend the best part of a month ensuring his players go into battle with Barcelona not only believing that they can win, but believing that they will win
There is also an argument that claims Barcelona may tire towards the end of matches. Real Madrid recently pipped them to the Spanish Cup thanks to a Ronaldo header in extra-time, despite Barcelona controlling the match. The Catalans also lost to Arsenal earlier in the season, despite performing masterfully for the first sixty minutes.
Their first-choice XI is unparalleled in strength, with a strong, virtually unchangeable core that includes Pique, Puyol , Alves at the back, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in midfield, and Villa and Messi in attack. Yet beyond this astonishing collection of talent, Barca bank on the somewhat less auspicious talents of Bojan, Maxwell and Milito. In contrast, United may be able to call on Dimitar Berbatov, Paul Scholes and Nani from the subs bench.
In truth, United will also have to be lucky. Fortunately, fate has frequently offered a helping hand in the club’s previous successes. The great Portuguese forward Eusebio fluffed his great late chance to win the 1968 European Cup final with the score still poised at 1-1, while Clayton Blackmore’s off-the-line clearance from a Michael Laudrup effort ensured United held on to beat Barcelona’s ‘dream team’ in the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final. Bayern Munich twice hit the woodwork in the climax to the famous 1999 final prior to United’s astonishing late rally, while Lampard and Drogba did the same in 2008, before John Terry’s penalty-spot stumble left Chelsea only inches from their first embrace with old ‘Big Ears’.
Barcelona are beatable. Even though we know this is true thanks to recent losses to Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, I feel almost like a lunatic saying it. We’ve failed to beat Wolves, Birmingham and Sunderland away, for Remi Moses’ sake, while Messi has scored about four thousand already this season.
During the 90s, Jack Walker had a poem by Walter D. Wintle pinned to the Blackburn Rovers dressing room wall. It went: ‘Life’s battle doesn’t always go to stronger or faster men; but sooner or later the man who wins, is the one who thinks he can.’ Ferguson will spend the best part of a month ensuring his players go into battle with Barcelona not only believing that they can win, but believing that they will win. The wily old Scotsman has been United’s greatest strength for over twenty years, and so long as he draws breath, those Reds walking up Wembley Way on May 28 will refuse to believe that his team is not capable of pulling off a miracle.
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