Who’ll stop Lionel Messi?
The 23-year-old World Player of the Year has turned in a slew of brilliant performances in Europe’s elite club competition in recent years, destroying teams, including Arsenal and Real Madrid, with his pace and trickery.
Deployed mainly on the right wing earlier in his career, he has since taken a more central role and started to drop deeper into midfield to collect the ball.
The tactic has the effect of giving already hard-pressed midfielders extra work and drawing defenders out of position, leaving holes behind to be exploited by players such as David Villa, Pedro Rodriguez or Andres Iniesta. Manchester United will have seen how Real Madrid have used centre back Pepe as an extra defensive midfielder in a largely successful attempt to negate Messi’s impact but manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unlikely to upset his well-established patterns to copy that approach. However, with his midfielders likely to be otherwise engaged, either Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic will have to step up to confront Messi in areas where the centre backs usually prefer not to venture.
Rock solid: Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic (left) has been outstanding in defence this season. AP
Vidic has been superb all season but if he has a weakness it is against speedy, close-controlling, small forwards, so the theoretically more mobile Ferdinand, who has struggled for fluidity all season, is more likely to be given the job.
Chase all night or wait and strike?
Barcelona’s midfield, marshalled by Spain playmaker Xavi Hernández, love to pass the ball and they are extraordinarily good at it. In their semi-final first leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, Barcelona had 72% of possession, an impressive feat in the lair of their arch enemy. They pass and move brilliantly, and often instantly, but too often are allowed to do so unmolested. Park Ji-sung, in particular, will see it as his personal mission to be in the face of any Barcelona player who has the ball, harrying and rushing him so that eventually one of those passes will go astray.
However, as others who have tried that approach have found, it is exhausting work and extremely difficult to sustain for 90 minutes.
Genius: Xavi marshalls the powerful Barcelona attack.AP
So United will have to find the balance of knowing when to press and when to stand back and say: “Well done, you’ve just completed 32 passes and advanced precisely nowhere”.
Barcelona beware—United can score too
United have not progressed to their third Champions League final in four years by spending all their time worrying about the opposition—they can play a bit too.
They are at their best on the counter-attack, getting the ball forward to a striker in a dangerous position as quickly as possible. Antonio Valencia has added real verve since his return from injury, and though Ryan Giggs’ 37-year-old legs might not cover the ground as they did a decade ago, his brain and feet still make him a potent creative force. Wayne Rooney’s gradual development into a deeper-lying threat and his partnership with razor-sharp Javier Hernandez complete an attack that not many teams have been able to keep at bay for long.
Battle of the benches
United are likely to have an ideal combination on the bench with players to cover all areas in all circumstances. Not many teams would be able to leave their league’s joint-top scorer among the substitutes but that is where Dimitar Berbatov is likely to begin the night. If United fall behind though or if Javier Hernandez finds himself too shackled, then the Bulgarian with a touch of magic is the ideal man to come on.
Darren Fletcher, returning to fitness after a long illness, is the ready-made terrier who can replace Park or any other fading midfielder. If something more creative is needed they have Portuguese winger Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, or Nani, itching to play.
Barca, by contrast, have a relatively thin squad and losing one of their starting 11 to injury or a red card would seriously disrupt their game plan.
Barca coach Josep Guardiola will have a number of promising younger players to call on if needed, including playmaker Thiago Alcantara, forwards Jeffren Suarez and Bojan Krkic and winger Ibrahim Afellay, while Seydou Keita has been effective at bolstering the midfield when brought off the bench.
Barcelona VS Manchester United
Wins: Barcelona, 3; United, 3; draws, 4
Goals: Barcelona, 17; United, 14
• It will be the 22nd time that a Spanish team has reached a European Cup/Champions League final and the 18th for an English club. Only Italy, with 26, can boast of more appearances in the final.
• If Barcelona win, it will be a record 13th European champions title for Spanish clubs. If United win, England will equal Spain and Italy with 12 titles.
• By a curious coincidence, both Barca and United have scored 303 goals and conceded 158 in the Champions League. The difference is in the number of games played—Barcelona’s 158 to United’s 175.
• It will be the first Champions League final at the new Wembley. The old stadium hosted five European finals, with both Barcelona and United winning there. United defeated Benfica 4-1 in 1968 and Barcelona won 1-0 against Sampdoria in 1992.
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