Wembley; the name stirs memories of greatness in the hearts of Culés of a certain age. Cruyff pacing pensively on the touchline in his dapper raincoat, Koeman’s immaculate strike. Nuñez taking a celebratory midnight dip in the Thames. For Catalans and Manchunians of the red persuasion, the brilliant white towers of the old Wembley recall each team’s first taste of glory on the European stage. Twenty-four years separate these two events, but for both teams ’68 and ’92 (respectively) represented the culmination of each club’s determined drive to be crowned champions of Europe. FC Barcelona face Manchester United this Saturday evening in the final of the 2010/2011 Champions League, appropriately staged in the modern incarnation of England’s iconic stadium.
Both teams, champions of their respective leagues, will be looking to compete a double; for Manchester United there is the added desire for vengeance. The 2009 final in Rome, a much-hyped affair thanks to the constant Ronaldo/Messi comparisons in the media, ended in tears for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men as the Catalans romped to a 2-0 victory. The recent exchange of flattery in the press between these two teams in the lead up to Saturday belies the facts: there is a score to settle between these two teams.
Barcelona have played six teams from a half dozen countries over the previous nine months to reach their second Champions League final under coach Pep Guardiola. Dominant in a group that included the champions of both the Greek and Danish leagues as well as Russia’s Rubin Kazan, the Catalans swept through the tournament’s opening stage with ease. Four wins and two draws saw Barcelona comfortably top the table, allowing only three goals against while scoring fourteen in the process (five of which came in a 5-1 demolition of Panathinaikos in the group’s opening game in the Camp Nou).
Matched against Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal in the round of 16, Barcelona suffered a shock defeat in the Emirates after an utterly dominant first half performance. The Catalan’s lack of focus after the interval saw an unlikely resurgence from the North London side, and Villa’s first half goal proved not enough on the night as late strikes from Andrei Arshavin and Robin Van Persie saw Arsenal take the unlikeliest of leads to Catalunya.
Nursing a 2-1 defeat from the first leg, Barcelona rallied at the Camp Nou with an inspired performance in a game that saw end-to-end excitement, and not a little controversy. A contentious red card handed out to Arsenal’s Van Persie for a seemingly innocuous moment of aggravation overshadowed the game’s eventual outcome, with the English press roundly criticizing Swiss referee Massimo Busacca for the sending off. Despite the outcry, a game full of trademark Barcelona passing play saw Iniesta and Xavi dominant in midfield, and a strike from the latter, as well as a magnificent brace from leading scorer Messi saw Arsenal dumped out of the tournament 4-3 on aggregate.
The quarterfinal matchup of this year’s tournament did not offer the challenge nor the excitement usually on display at this stage of the season. Drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk, the Catalans offered no mercy in a first leg rout at the Camp Nou that saw Iniesta, Alves, Piquè, Keita and Xavi all find the back of the net. Already a foregone conclusion, the second leg in the Ukraine was notable only for Messi’s ninth Champions League goal of the season, coming after a typical piece of buildup play with close friend Dani Alves. A 6-1 aggregate win setup what, at the time, seemed a mouthwatering semifinal showdown with archrival Real Madrid.
Unfortunately, things did not come to pass as expected. Set in the midst of a now-infamous four game El Clásico series, Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho managed to suck the life out of what should have been a series of epic encounters that will now be largely remembered for events off the field. The first leg in the Bernabeu was overshadowed by diving, flaring tempers, a contentious red card and a Spanish press that was complicit in a Madrid-orchestrated media tit-for-tat. All of this though, dear reader, does not need to be revisited: if you have come this far in the season you are already well aware of what happened next. The image of Messi ghosting in at the near post to meet a low cross from Afellay, only for the diminutive Argentina to burst through the Madrid defense minutes later to claim a stunning second will live on as a brilliant memory of the season.
The second leg in the Camp Nou was an equally muted affair, with Madrid once again choosing a defensive posture that signaled capitulation from the first whistle. A 1-1 tie, courtesy of second half goals from Pedro and Marcelo, was enough to see the Catalans through to their third final of the last decade.
For Manchester United the road to Wembley has been a bit more relaxed. A similarly dominant first round performance in a group that included Valencia, Rangers and Turkey’s Bursaspor saw them finish first, setting up a run-in with group F runners-up Marseille. A mind-numbingly boring 0-0 draw in the South of France was followed up by a fairly typical 2-1 win at Old Trafford courtesy of two Chicharito tap-ins.
Marseille was followed by Chelsea. A 1-0 first leg win at Stamford Bridge was followed by badly tempered match at Old Trafford that saw Chelsea’s Brazilian midfielder Ramires sent off, while another tap-in from Chicharito and a late Ji-Sung Park goal were enough to see off the London side on a 3-1 aggregate despite Didier Drogba’s late consolation goal.
Manchester then drew giant-killers Schalke, fresh from their now-famous exploits against a very poor Inter Milan. While there was much speculation in the press as to the possibility of the Germans claiming another famous scalp, United quickly put those doubts to rest with a 2-0 win on the continent. This was followed by a ruthless 4-1 win back in Manchester, a scoreline that actually flattered a Schalke side that were simply torn to shreds on the night.
As several Barcelona players have stated in the press, this is a very different Manchester United team from the side they faced in Rome two years ago; the red devils play a much more open game now that they are without the services of a certain pass-averse Portugese. The arrival of the little Mexican Pea, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, has had a two-fold effect on United this season: Rooney has been allowed to drop back a bit deeper to help create play, while the Mexican has taken over as a poacher in the mold of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. This is dangerous for a number of reasons come Saturday, most notably that Sergio Busquets will now be matched against Wayne Rooney. The tall Catalan seems to wither when faced with a similarly physical player, and so far this season has resorted to diving in these situations. Let us hope that this is not the case at Wembley.
Tuesday’s testimonial for Gary Neville offers several clues as to who will be in the starting XI Saturday evening, which, on that note, should be a classic Ferguson 4-4-2. While there is no doubt that Edwin Van Der Saar will start in goal, and Rooney will partner Chicharito in attack, the midfield and back four throw up several possible scenarios. I expect Rafael Da Silva to start at right back, with Ferguson choosing youthful speed over the experience of John O’Shea to deal with David Villa. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic should start in the middle as usual, with Patrice Evra assigned to mark Messi and/or Alves on United’s left.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes should both start for United, having spent just half an hour on the pitch Tuesday; Giggs is always trouble, either out on the left or in his new role in the center, while nobody can (or should) forget Scholes’ stunning strike from distance that dumped the Catalans out of the cup in 2008. That leaves two open positions, and neither is an easy call. I think Ji-Sung Park, who has been in fine form as of late, will get the nod for his playmaking abilities. I expect to see him starting in the middle next to Scholes, tasked with providing a deep-lying creative spark. The final spot in midfield? It’s a toss up between Darren Fletcher, Nani and Antonio Valencia (although I don’t think many would bet on the Scotsman to find himself in the starting IX). I’m going to tip Valencia to start out on the right, where he has spent the majority of this season causing problems near the touchline. His excellent crossing will no-doubt come in handy against a considerably shorter Barcelona side.
Barring some catastrophe on the training ground, the Catalan starting IX is no mystery. Valdès, winner of yet another Zamora trophy, has played epicly this season, and his form on the night will be crucial against a Manchester side that attacks with precision. Dani Alves will find himself at right back, as always, while I expect Piqué to partner the ageless Puyol in the middle. The left back position is the only real point of contention: will it be Abidal, still making his remarkable comeback from surgery? I think so. Maxwell and Adriano have both played excellently when fit this season, but it’s just too good of a comeback story for the Frenchman to not get the nod from Guardiola. He has played well since his miraculous return, and his recent call up for France is indicative of the faith his two managers continue to show.
The remaining six spots will all be very familiar faces: Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Pedro and Messi should all take their usual positions on the pitch Saturday evening. Guardiola, ever the pragmatist, has no reason to change what has worked so well all season.
Prediction: This Champions League final promises to be an epic encounter, made all the more so by the prestigious surroundings. Barcelona’s tactics on the night will be no great mystery: their possession game, full of probing passes around the edge of the opposition’s box, is their trademark. But even with the game plan so out in the open the spontaneity that has come to epitomize the Catalan’s style of play under Guardiola, reminiscent of the Dream Team of previous Wembley glory, is what makes their game so dangerous. Marking one man simply frees another, and at times it seems as though it’s Valdès plus ten strikers.
For Manchester United it’s a fight for revenge, for some proof that Barcelona’s philosophy is not the only way to succeed. Make no mistake, there will be no bus parked in Wembley: United will attack, but will do so cautiously. It has become clear that the best way to destabilize this Barcelona side is to deny them the space to dominate in midfield, but this must be balanced with the need to remain vigilant in the space directly above the back four. While Ferdinand and Vidic are indeed defensive rocks, neither is what one would describe as exceptionally fast. To beat the Catalans, Manchester must not have a single moment of miscommunication: it will be only through a group effort that United win this game.
I do not think they will.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United