FC Barcelona vs Manchester United
Stadio Olimpico, 27th May 2009
So it’s probably too late for a detailed preview of Finale 2009, and truth be told I have too many thoughts in my head to coherently express. Most of the analysis has already been done – I’ll try highlighting things that I personally find important.
Ah, I ended up writing too much again.
There have been some people saying that Manchester and Barcelona are very similar in their playing style, they will both bring the same approach to the game, etc etc. I say, bullshit. Both teams will want to win, yes, and both teams defend from the front with aggressive swarming and pressurizing. But Barcelona can only play one way, and Manchester United can play ten different ways. The 4-0 drubbing of Malaga was meant to be an indication of the versatility of this Blaugrana side, but the Chelsea fixture showed everyone that Barcelona had no plan B. The problem is that ‘everyone’ includes dear old Fergie, who had the opportunity to study this style very carefully in last year’s semifinal as well. They know how we’ll try to hurt them (and the added threat of Daniel Alves that Barca have enjoyed all season long is nonexistent. Let no one forget that Iniesta’s screamer was a direct result of an Alves cross.)
So Barca’s approach is more or less certain. Manchester, though, can choose to play like-for-like or they can revert to last year’s successful formula – hold, hold, hold, sucker punch. If they play an open game, it will be to Barcelona’s advantage but also pose an extra threat. Henry and Iniesta are two important defenders for Barcelona, and they’re just returning from injury. Yaya Toure is positionally not good enough to track Ronaldo/Rooney, and Puyol and Silvinho are slow. Seriously. Puyol has been skinned by many this season – look to Aguero and Llorente – and he’s slightly too gung-ho and because he’s that fraction of a second slower, his challenges won’t be as telling as they used to be.
Manchester are more dangerous than Barcelona are while attacking, in the context of this game, because the Blaugrana back line wasn’t really tested defensively at the Bridge (and it failed, let’s face it). If Fergie chooses to attack with full force, then and ONLY then will this makeshift defense really be tested. A Chelsea side more intent on defending than attacking and Athletic Bilbao do not world-class threats make. But for a few questionable refereeing decisions, Chelsea probably would have scored more than 1 and Bilbao did take the lead. Manchester won’t concede 4, and I’m not counting on Valdes to make another miracle save. It would be very, very stupid to depend on amazing goalkeeping for the win. Defensive solidity and better man marking are weaknesses that Fergie will exploit, better than just about any other manager in the world.
All that said, if Manchester do play an open game, then Barcelona will almost definitely have more of the ball, and unlike last year, more control. As Xavi has said, ball possession will be key:
“We have a crystal clear philosophy of football and it’s taken us this far. We will play on the attack right from the first minute. We will play to win, as we always do. I don’t know what Ferguson will decide. He’s admitted he knows how much we like to have the ball and that when we have possession we can be very dangerous, so I can’t predict what they will do. Last year, they were very defensive. At Old Trafford they let us have the ball but they got that goal and we couldn’t score. But United are certainly one of the best technical footballing teams and they share a good deal of our philosophy. They like to have the ball, dominate the game and get at the opposition. I think the team that has the most of the ball and uses it best in Rome will have the best chance.”
Fergie agrees, by the way.
The reason Arsenal were taken apart so easily in the semifinal was that they lost the midfield battle – Rooney and Ronaldo were massive threats principally because they could have the ball and then play with it. If Barcelona play as they did against Bayern, or against Sevilla in the first half La Liga, then Manchester will be very uncomfortable. To those who remind me of last year, I will say that yes, Barcelona did not look like scoring and Manchester were able to hold them off. But that was a distinctly out-of-form Barca side against a better Manchester side, and even then Utd were uncomfortable for long stretches of the game. (I think last year’s Utd team was better than this one’s – they were stronger defensively and in the midfield with Ronaldo in the form of his life.)
Henry was still finding his feet and wasn’t a starter for the semifinal vs Utd, but he was able to make an impact immediately against a very solid lineup. Wes Brown had been playing at right back for most of the season – O Shea-Rio-Vidic-Evra hasn’t been as solid OR as consistent (in terms of games played together) as last year’s Wes-Rio-Vidic-Evra. Iniesta, too, was not as confident or effective going forward last year as he has been this year. His dribbling will be a great asset on the night. He wasn’t able to do much last year playing up front, but I think in the midfield and ESPECIALLY with Xavi at his side and Henry in front of him, he’ll have a sting. People haven’t noticed the Iniesta-Henry telepathy this season – similar to the Messi-Alves partnership.
It should be obvious that Henry and Iniesta are vital to the Blaugrana cause in the game – but Tito Vilanova, the assistant coach, has hinted that they might come on as subs OR not play the full game.
I’m guessing that both will start and will play the full game if fitness allows, but it might not be such a bad idea to keep one of them in reserve just in case we can’t find a way through.
EVERYONE so far has predicted the following lineup:
Puyol, Toure, Pique, Silvinho/Keita
Busquets/Keita, Xavi, Iniesta
Messi, Eto’o, Henry.
But there’s another possibility, and that is:
Puyol, Toure, Pique, Silvinho
Busquets, Keita, Xavi
Messi, Eto’o, Henry/Iniesta
I’m not suggesting this as my choice for starting lineup – but it wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all, would it? You have extra defensive cover AND extra firepower on the bench. Keita is probably not going to play left-back – he’d be out of position there and he’s said he doesn’t want to either. Toure is playing out of position out of necessity – Caceres hasn’t done well enough with the B-team to warrant a place (he was constantly trying to give the ball away instead of starting attacks with his ‘outlet’ passes!) I’m wondering whether Puyol can be played on Ronaldo’s side. No, I’m not suggesting tight marking, but rather keeping Ronaldo away from Silvinho. I’m saying – assuming Ronaldo starts on the wing, play Puyol on the same wing – he’s shown enough capability at left-back. Don’t leave the ageing Silvinho open to CR7, because that would be suicidal. No offense to Silvinho, but he simply isn’t quick enough. Neither is Puyol for that matter, but he has more defensive capability, nous, and sheer bling.
What? Focus on Ronaldo and forget the rest?!
No, of course not. Rooney will be another crucial player – but I think Ronaldo is more crucial than most. He makes the attack really tick – Berbatov is too often simply holding up play and if Rooney depends on Ronaldo more than any other teammate. He either crosses to, or receives crosses from, CR7. We have midfield superiority, I believe. Nullify Ronaldo as well, and you’ve starved Rooney. The other attacker? Well, we’re assuming either Berbatov or Tevez will play. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a packed midfield with Carrick, Anderson, Park, and Giggs and Ronaldo/Rooney up front, because that helps Manchester in the middle. 3-on-3, and Barcelona should have control of that area. Based on what we’ve seen so far this season. So stopping Ronaldo is very important, and Barcelona don’t-and can’t-gang up on anyone Chelsea-style. They just don’t do triple-marking.
Berbatov, Tevez, and the Manchester bench. Critical elements, and the starting lineups will be very interesting indeed. If Tevez is playing, it’s because of his ability to ‘defend from the front’, indicating a safety-first approach from Fergie. Berbatov’s inclusion will probably mean that Manchester are going to play a relatively open game, because there’s no chance in hell either Rooney or Ronaldo are dropped. I would be VERY surprised if that happened. So Fergie’s decision on those two will be telling. In any case, Manchester have a much better squad than Barcelona’s, a much better bench. The league performances simply confirmed this – Barca’s B team is not as good as Manchester’s B team. Fergie has an amazing squad. You’ll have Berba/Tevez, Scholes, maybe Giggs too, and several more on the bench. Guardiola MIGHT have Iniesta/Henry, but will probably have only Bojan/Hleb/Gudjonsen to call upon for vitality.
Both teams know each other very well, it’s the end of the season. There are no more surprises left – unless either of the coaches has something up their sleeve. It all counts on the performances now – and I really think that defensive blunders are what both teams need to watch out for. That’s where the goals will come from – a mistimed lunge, a defender getting tricked by an attacker, a brilliant turn or shot. That’s what it took last year, too.
As Mourinho has said of Manchester – “They have absolutely everything as a team in this moment: strength, mentality, speed, magic, solutions.”
But they had all of that last year too, and it was ever so close. I’m hoping that Barcelona can play to their best – it will be so much easier for Manchester if Barca play like they did in the second half against Villarreal, for instance. That was shockingly bad, a disaster waiting to happen.
That’s about it. Phil Ball has a very interesting take on this game – the expatriate view. No, I haven’t been able to decide what the lineup should be.
Predictions to follow below.
(Got the image off Fauzan’s album, dunno where HE got it from.)
The head says Manchester – everything points in their direction – a better squad, greater abilities as a team, greater experience on the final stage. But the heart says Barcelona. The most popular scoreline prediction has been 2-1, so far.
If Manchester choose to play it tight, I predict a 1-0 result.
If it’s an open game, I expect at least 5 goals – a 3-2 humdinger.
I don’t know who will win. But that’s what I think the scorelines could be.