On May 28th the plaudits will be queuing up to crown Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona not only the Kings of Europe, but undoubtedly one of the greatest club sides ever to have played the game, if they are to repeat their achievements of two seasons ago and once again they topple Sir Alex Ferguson’s United in convincing style in the Champions League Final. Guardiola’s side, driven by the inspired little Argentinean master Lionel Messi amongst others, will start the game as overwhelming favourites, with pundits and coaches alike scratching their heads as to how the Catalan giants can be beaten. So, the Million Dollar question remains, can it be done? How will the wily Scotsman attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible task of shackling the brimming talent at the Spanish Champions disposal?
The important thing to remember is that Barcelona are human. Just. Sir Alex is canny enough to know that although Barca are definitely in place to join the pantheon of great European sides (although perhaps not the greatest, as James Lawton so eloquently debated in his superb column in the Independent), they are still under pressure to deliver the elusive duo of back to back Champions League victories that sets the great apart from the good and would serve to prove they can dominate Europe over a period of time. One must only look back to how they fluffed their lines against Jose Mourinho’s disciplined Inter Milan side the previous season and more recently in the Copa Del Rey final against the same nemesis’s Real Madrid side. Although their semi-final victory against the same opponents in this year’s Champions League semi will have helped banish such doubts, there remains the possibility that their imperiousness is not entirely all conquering. We must remember that Messi and co have had their fortune so far in this year’s competition, most obviously with Pepe’s sending off proving the turning point of the semi-final first leg. Equally so, for all their dominance against Arsenal in the quarter finals was compounded by another questionable decision to send off Robin Van Persie, and even then had Nichlas Bendtner proved a cooler head in front of goal, Arsenal could have pinched the away goal that could have sent Barca out. Although Jose Mourinho was perhaps ill-advised in pointing this out so emphatically in post match comments, (along with previous good fortune enjoyed by the Spanish side against his Chelsea side two years ago), it is true that they have, as all winners tend to, had the rub of the green somewhat. United must hope it is they, and not Barcelona who are on the receiving end of lady luck’s telling influence come the end of May.
Back into the realms under their control, how do United set out against the endlessly creative side they will face? Do they follow the example followed by the cartoon villain-esque Mourinho and face the accusations of anti-football that the Portuguese was forced to endure and was, for Real Madrid at least, to prove fruitless. Or do they pick up the gauntlet thrown down by their challengers and go for it at Wembley Stadium? The answer I believe lies somewhere in the middle. United will need to remain disciplined and vigilant defensively for the whole 90 minutes (or beyond) to stand any chance at the National stadium and have a back four well suited to doing so, if the Iron fist of Nemanja Vidic is to sit alongside the velvet glove of the classy Rio Ferdinand. Equally pertinently, the full backs, most likely to be Patrice Evra and the recently favoured Fabio Da Silva, with have to remain strong in the wide areas and as a team, the Red Devils will have to cut out the cute interplay on the edge of the box that has become Barcelona’s trademark in recent times. It is in these areas where Messi, Iniesta and Xavi in particular like to thrive, in the space between defence and midfield in which it is so hard to defend unless someone puts their hand up and takes responsibility. It is for this reason I believe Sir Alex will go with his favoured 5 in midfield European set up, with two central midfielders in particular to be responsible for sitting fairly deep for this very purpose. How he would like a fit Owen Hargreaves for such a role, but in his long-term absence it looks set to be taken on by Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, whose suspension in the previous final showdown with Barcelona was much emphasised by the United hierarchy as one of the key reasons for their downfall. On the wings, Antonio Valencia and Ji-Sung Park look to be rewarded for their endeavour which would leave the mercurial talents of Nani as an option from the bench only, as would be the case for second in line striking talents Javier Hernandez (despite his vital strike against Chelsea and Dimitar Berbatov. This just leaves the final midfield place up for grabs and is likely to be a straight shootout between two Old Trafford legends, the evergreen pairing of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Although both would provide key quality of possession (something which is vital at the best of times but not least against the best exponents of keep-ball), I fear Scholes’ recklessness in the tackle may count against him on the big stage once again – after all the importance of keeping ten men on the pitch against Guardiola’s team has unarguable precedent. On such key decisions, the outcome could hang.
Having all but won this year’s Premiership, United’s thoughts will inevitably already be on the challenge lying in wait at Wembley. The accusation that has dogged United team all season, despite now having all but wrapped up their position as Champions elect, is that they are simply the best of a bad bunch in a distinctly underwhelming year for English football in terms of talent. A Champions League win would force such naysayers to concede that not only a dramatic rethink would be needed, but that this side would be ready to take their place amongst the pantheon already containing those of the class of 99 and even 68. The great Barcelona may stand between them and such a legacy, but write off the Great Scot and his charges at your peril.