All to play for in Wembley


“You see Barça on TV and they have fantastic players. They’ve got 3 of the best in the world playing in their team.” RIO FERDINAND

The consensus among many of my fellow soccer fans seems to be that Barcelona will stride onto the Wembley pitch as favorites on May 28. For good reason, too. This Barcelona side is acknowledged to be one of the best teams in the world right now, and indeed, some have referred to them as one of the greatest teams that have ever played the game, period. Would you bet against a team that featured Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Alves, Puyol, Pique, and others? Indeed, that list doesn’t even mention the likes of Seydou Keita, who was a club captain in France for four years before coming to La Liga, nor does it credit Eric Abidal, who started a game barely two months after being operated for a cancerous tumor. This team has had 22 different scorers this season, and it’s the tiki-taka teamwork that so defines Barcelona. Pretty play would be useless without success, but at risk of stating the obvious, the blaugrana are ridiculously successful.

In addition, Manchester United hasn’t exactly set the Premier League alight this year, and again, most observers agree that the current incarnation of the Red Devils cannot match the class of ’99 or ’08. Alex Ferguson has had to do without as many marquee names as he is used to, and Utd fans would admit that without Javier Hernandez’s unexpectedly fantastic season, the team may never have accomplished what they eventually have (a place in the Champions League final, and effectively, a 19th Premier League title). This Manchester side does not have the aura about it that its predecessors did – and a half crocked Owen is far less threatening than Cristiano Ronaldo! On the face of it, then – Barcelona are the team to beat, and Alex Ferguson has a real challenge on his hands.

That makes me a bit of a contrarian when I say that Barcelona can not be considered favorites on May 28.


For starters, form plays a big role. Barcelona haven’t been at their best consistently in recent months, and just came off a grueling series of Clasicos in which they only played like they can for a half or two at most. Barcelona fans – like myself – can look at the second half of the Copa del Rey and the second leg of the semifinal at Camp Nou, but that’s really it. Partly because Mourinho set up Madrid to stifle above all (big surprise there), Barcelona were frustrated into stop-start football that didn’t allow them to keep the movement flowing. Their last game ended on a great note, as Barcelona clinched the Liga for the third year in a row, but the good will among fans missed one thing – that the team only drew 1-1 with Levante, who fought desperately hard for the point that would all but ensure that they were not relegated. A few weeks ago it was last year’s champions (2nd division, of course) Real Sociedad who spoiled the Barca party, handing them their first loss since September. Celebrations over the title have masked the very real fact that Pedro and Villa haven’t been scoring fluently (if at all) for far too long now, and that Barcelona doesn’t have a fully fit left back to speak of. Eric Abidal, as mentioned before, just went through surgery to remove a cancerous tumor! It’s a miracle he’s playing so soon, much less building up match fitness for the biggest match of his life (he missed the 2009 final after being suspended when Anelka mistook the Stamford Bridge pitch for a swimming pool). Maxwell and Adriano were also injured recently, and even Puyol only returned in time for the Clasicos last month. Both Barcelona’s attack and defense have been found wanting in recent weeks.

On the contrary, Manchester United are on a roll – it only took a few seconds of their title decider vs Chelsea to prove that. The team was brimming with confidence, and Chelsea were never really in the game, not with Ferguson`s men in this mood. Park Ji-Sung, derided in the past for being a token marketing gesture to East Asian fans, was positively Tevezesque in the way he harried opponents, won balls, and launched attacks through a combination of sheer tenacity, quick thinking, and exquisite skill. ‘Rolled back the years’ is a phrase used for Giggs too often, so let`s just say that he was mentally and physically a step ahead of his marker when he sent in a wonderful cross for Vidic to head in. Hernandez, better known as Chicharito, has hardly taken a backwards step all season long, while Rooney has been rejuvenated after famously almost leaving earlier in the season. At the back, the Ferdinand-Vidic pairing remains as forbiddingly fluent as ever – the two central defenders are not like a wall of brute force, but one with a life of its own. The Man Utd-Schalke semifinal was dominated so thoroughly by the Red Devils, over both legs, that it was difficult to remember that no one had expected the eventual 6-1 blowout.
While Barcelona’s thin squad is coming back to haunt them – as everyone predicted it would – Manchester’s huge squad has been an undoubted asset. Gerry Armstrong, commentating during the Levante game, noted that United have looked increasingly fit recently, carrying on an enviable record of always peaking at the perfect time.
Alex Ferguson, after the final in Rome in 2009, accepted defeat gracefully and added that he knew where his team had failed. It’s ludicrous to think he would repeat his mistakes. This is a man who has won 19 Premier League titles in just over two decades, and is easily one of the greatest managers the sport of football has ever seen. His motivational ability (read: hairdryers) remains as strong as ever, and his tactical awareness is second to none. It’s telling that he pointed out that his team has gained significant experience over the past two years, and there is every reason to suggest that this United side will not be riding the carousel this time around. It all depends on the team combination, but looking at how well Ji-Sung and Valencia defended versus Chelsea, protecting their fullbacks, it seems that they will play a crucial role in denying Messi and co. the space they need. With his squad, Fergie has a number of options – Guardiola, on the other hand, only plays one way. Barcelona`s formation and playing style won`t change – so Ferguson can effectively plan regardless of the actual players that take the pitch. I doubt he`ll fail to exploit this advantage. At the very least, we know that United will harry their opponents like no one`s business – Ji-Sung and Fletcher are shoo-ins, as are Vidic,Rio,Evra,and Rooney. The rest – I’ll leave it to better judges than I to make those predictions!
Everyone has said this is not a good Manchester United team, that we are not this or that. But we have scored more goals than anyone else. Our home form has been magnificent. We are undefeated in Europe.ALEX FERGUSON
Home advantage
Lastly, a small word regarding the venue. Wembley is definitely a place that Utd is more familiar to than Barcelona, and it would be difficult to imagine English fans cheering against an English team against Spanish opposition. The venue confers a small advantage on Manchester, and as Guardiola says, in big games like this, its the details that matter.
That really is the biggest reason there can be no pre-match favorites. Football is – bloody hell – as unpredictable as any sport can be, and there can be no accounting for something like a slip or a simple mistake that completely changes the game. Anything can happen on May 28th – and my only desire is for ‘anything’ to not include bad refereeing decisions, cheating, or any controversy of any sort. Let it be a good, clean, hard fought game. Almost exactly two years after the Rome final, let’s have another win – Visca el Barca!


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