Friday, May 27, 2011

Champions League Final Preview

The stage is set for an absolutely magnificent final. There is no doubt that the best two teams in Europe will contest Saturday's showcase, and that if one team can stop Barca, it's United.

Why Barcelona will win:

The Messi factor- Even if Barcelona come out flat, unexciting and predictable, they will still have hope of victory due to one little man from Argentina. Unlike United, Barcelona possess a player capable of breaking through a tight game; turning a match on its head with one moment of magic. Messi is by far the best player in the World and he will be, by an even further distance, the most talented player on the field at Wembley. Messi has scored an absolutely ridiculous number of goals this season; United will find it very difficult to prevent him from increasing that total.

The Midfield- By far Manchester United's worst department, happens to be Barca's best. The midfield, as ever, will be absolutely crucial in this game; it was Barca's dominance in that area back in 2009 which tipped the balance in Rome. Players like Xavi and Iniesta will likely walk all over the Carrick centered Manchester United midfield, making Rooney's tracking back absolutely pivotal. Ferguson will be ruing the absence of a fully fit Darren Fletcher, though his dream pick would surely have been the chronically injured Owen Hargreaves.

Why Manchester United will win:

Wembley- For a match played at a neutral ground, United have are as close to a home advantage as they could possibly be. Large portions of the United squad have played a myriad of times at Wembley, whether it be in FA Cup semi-finals or on England duty. United's familiarity with the stadium will no doubt hand them an advantage, as will a crowd that is likely to be bursting with United support.

The Arsenal blueprint- Barcelona have played only one other match in London this season, a 2-1 first leg loss at The Emirates. In that game, Arsenal held on for sixty minutes, keeping the deficit at one, before hitting Barcelona hard in the last thirty; scoring twice to win the game. Even the mighty Barcelona tire out, and Manchester United must make sure that they take advantage of that in the last thirty minutes.

Form, form, form- As we know, there is always a great deal of furore which exists around weakened team selections late in the season. However, interestingly, Ferguson elected to start a strong line-up against Blackpool last weekend; something which will insure that the vast majority of the team are sharp as can be heading into the final. On the other hand, Barcelona have been resting players left, right and center for the last three games, and unsurprisingly, they have won only one of their last four. Obviously, it is not as though the Barcelona starting XI has quit football for three weeks, but that lack of form and match sharpness could hand United an edge.

The ghost of 2009- Given the high standards maintained by Ferguson over the years, I find it doubtful that the Scotsman will have let his troops forget about Rome 2009. United were played off the park on that occasion, and redemption will be a major driving force for the United playing staff. Moving away from the mental side of it, Ferguson and the rest of the coaching staff will have learned from their tactical mistakes; including a collection of ill advised substitutions and line up decisions.

Mental Strength- No team in the World has a greater winning mentality than Manchester United Football Club. The team just keeps on going and going no matter the circumstances, so don't be surprised if they score an important late goal on Saturday. Over the course of this season, United have proved that they posses a unique ability to come back from adversity, whether it be during the course of one match or a series of matches.

Van Der Sar's final bow- Obviously, the whole of the United squad would love to win the Champions League, but none more than one brilliant Dutchman. At age forty, Van Der Sar has elected to terminate his career at the end of this season, and Saturday's final will be his last professional appearance. Van Der Sar will no doubt be put under immense pressure by the Catalans, but when on form (and he will be on Saturday) VDS is a tough man to beat.

Wayne Rooney- Despite everything that has gone on in his personal life over the last twelve months, Wayne Rooney is Manchester United's best player. In his press conference today, Ferguson identified a "mature" Rooney as the man who can win the final for United, and I couldn't agree more. Obviously, Rooney's attacking role will be pivotal, but his defensive responsibilities could prove to be the defining aspect of Saturday's match. If Rooney can make an extra man in midfield when Barca have the ball, then United will be well on course to frustrating the Catalans. And oh yeah, Rooney plays pretty well in the attacking third too...

The Verdict/Prediction: One thing that we must constantly keep in mind when analyzing a final is that on any given day, anything can happen. I think we can all agree that in a series of ten games, Barcelona would win most of them, but that doesn't necessarily guide us towards an obvious decision here. United have numerous things going their way, most of which are detailed above. However, I still can't really see past a Barcelona victory, they have a superior playing staff and will pass the life out of even this most determined United side.

The battle between managers will be another key aspect to the game, Ferguson lost the tactical duel quite badly in '09, a fate he will be desperate to avoid this time around. All the word coming out of United seems to be that the Red Devils will play their game and not bow to Barca; I'm not sure whether that will offer them an advantage or a disadvantage.

Both teams are brilliant, both boast world class talents, but one is better and that team is Barcelona. The Catalans are arguably the greatest club side of all time, and I just see them pipping this one.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United

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