Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Man U need efficiency to beat Barcelona in Champions' League Final

Sir Alex Ferguson says that his oppoenets are stronger, having grown in strength since their last encounter. That match, the 2009 Champions' League final, was almost the archetypal Barcelona symphony: composed by Pep Guardiola, conducted by Iniesta and Xavi and ultimately won through brilliant solos by Messi and Eto'o. United were second best that day, suffering from a lack of match-fitness and the unthinkably-important-in-2004 Darren Fletcher.

It was a magical match, even though after about sixty minutes it left the United fan with that horrible sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. Remember, this was after Barcelona grew their halo but before their aura had fully taken hold. While the Catalans had been very lucky to escape Chelsea in the semi final (Didier Drogba's supernovaic "f*****g disgrace" match) and appeared to have trouble breaking down the Blues' defence. Popular opinion before the final swung to the Red Devils based on the flawed theorum of "Chelsea's defence troubled them and United' defence is better than theirs".

This year United appear in better touch and health, with the possible exception of Fletcher, who is still on the road back from a virus. They also, however, face an opponent who have become more machine than man in the time since they last played. Barcelona's gameplan will be the same as always: death by a thousand cuts, tiki-taka, pass-and-move offense. They can play that way due to defensive stanchions Pique and Puyol whose steadfastness is often overlooked when referring to world football's ultimate "goodies".

How can United's take Barcelona down?

Firstly, Sir Alex Ferguson can't afford to be sentimental with his team selection. Anderson has been in good touch and has solidified his position as a central midfielder of the future at Old Trafford, while Paul Scholes' legs, great servants though they be, have gone. Both have never been the most elegant defensive players, even if they do try. That means United's central midfield partnership should probably be Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher which, while capable defensively, lacks a certain deconstructive element.

Ferguson's preference for a 4-5-1 away from home means that only one further central midfielder and that position belongs unquestionably to Ryan Giggs who provides that creative element. He, unlike contemporary Scholes, still deserves a starting berth as the team's creative hub. When faced with a minimum of possession, it's imperative to use best what you get: Fletcher and Carrick can keep the ball but it will be Giggs, Scholes or Anderson who use it.

Secondly, man-marking Messi, though potentially minimising his influence, would disregard the threat of Xavi and Iniesta, not to mention willo-the-wisps Villa and Pedro. United need to absorb Barca's pressure yet still have enough to counter-attack. While Jose Mourinho's Copa del Rey tactics won them the Cup, they proved only moderately successful (at best) during the other three Clasicos and it took Los Merengues away from their strengths. United's strength in 2010-11 has been their attitude and endeavour: they'll need both to win the ball from Barcelona.

Counterattacking could work but would would go against the 58% possession they've accumulated over the course of their Champions' League campaign. Over Guardiola' reign at the Camp Nou, they've lost eight league matches - five in that glorious first year - and four in the Champions' League. In those La Liga games, they've condeded an average of 34% possession (in 2010's only loss to Atletico) and 22% in this year's blemishes against Hercules and Real Sociedad. In the Champions' League, they've gone down to Rubin Kazan, Inter Milan, Shakhtar and Arsenal while controlling the ball a combined 69.25% of the time. United must understand that no matter how good they are, Barca will control the ball. Therefore, the Red Devils must make the most of whatever chances they get.

Thirdly, they need efficiency from the wings. Nani, while having almost every trick in the book, often tries to do too much, stifling attacking fluency. When on his game he's outstanding, but when he's not, it's obvious to see why Ferguson prefers Park and Valencia on the flanks. The Ecuadorian has been outstanding in an injury-limited campaign and lines up against possibly Barca's weakest position, left-back. Should Puyol play there, Valencia has the speed to take advantage of Captain Caveman's ageing wheels while alternative Adriano is a hot-and-cold proposition. Park's "up and at 'em" style where he tracks back to defend is a good option for negating the presence of Dani Alves, if not attacking a player who's renowned for his offensive prowess and spasmodic defense.

There's no strict way of beating the Catalans. Both Inter Milan and Chelsea proved the best way of beating Barca is to be solid defensively, to do everything possible to disrupt their game and hope like crazy that they have a bad day. Scoring from set pieces or from afar is a bonus. United should defend, defend, defend but to play their own game going forward whenever possible, using Valencia, Rooney and Park's creativity and Javier Hernandez's in-the-box predation.

Valencia Image courtesy

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