“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.
“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
- Pep Guardiola praises ‘extraordinary’ Manchester United (independent.co.uk)
- ‘Barcelona don’t scare us,’ says Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson (guardian.co.uk)