(By Paul Morrissey – follow on Twitter here.)
Estamos alerta,esta carrera es de obstáculos,
la mente despierta pa que no fallen los cálculos
(We’re alert, this career is full of obstacles,
The mind wakes up so the calculations don’t mess up) -Track – Los Mios, from Delahoga (Barca’s changing room anthem)
Never mind the supposed lack of “fantasy” in this United team and the strange sexual undertone that implies (The Office Training Day; Gareth – ultimate fantasy?), there’s fantasy aplenty surrounding this game with all the dough-eyed talk of a Classic Final.
For all the giddy optimism surrounding this Wembley showdown, a rational objection: what concretely has changed between the two teams since Barca swatted United aside in Rome ’09?
Rio Ferdinand has recently said they just didn’t turn up that night; Ronaldo blamed it on the “tactics” on the night; Van der Sar claims certain “mistakes” were made; the truth, as we all know, was less complicated: Barca were too strong for United and logically and emphatically beat them. End of.
Two years on from that final, United are inexplicably expected to play the Jogo Bonito with and against the Pep Team that averages 70% possession per game.
The possession-hogging has been a consant, and has even found its maximum expression in some of their defeats this season – all of which have resulted from mitigating circumstances: Hercules – jetlag; Arsenal at the Emirates – “footballing accident”; Copa del Rey final – Pepe’s Rules; and Real Sociedad – shit does happen.
The one team to actually go mano a mano with Barca received a punitive Manita to their collective culo for their troubles. Real Madrid as an entity is still traumatised to the very core.
But this is United and United play by their own rules and nobody else’s. Not even their own. Except and exceptionally when they face Futbol Club de Barcelona. Ah.
Because yes, United have in their last three meetings with the Cules (’08 semis & ’09 final) tacitally accepted that they were facing a superior team and altered their approach accordingly. In the 2008 semi, they didn’t so much scrape through as take the magic beans and bail.
Talk to Frank, in the aftermath of that defeat: “The English teams have more to give on the pitch that the public would like to see. It is great for them to do so well but it is also a pity. It is not the most beautiful way of football. They can do a lot more than that. I see it in the Premier League but not in European competitions.” (Rijkaard)
In 2009, emboldened as reigning champs and a cocksure march to that final, Fergie matched Barca up with a 4-3-3, but again, played with a cold frigidity that belied their status. A primitive reflex to recoil into their shell at the sight of azulgrana shirt?
The problem United have, and indeed any European team that’s met the contemporary Barcelona in the one-off final (so Arsenal), is stepping up to the tempo that Barca set right from kick-off. Two years ago it was a complete shock to the system and Barca made a point of exploiting this. It’s unlikely they’ll cut through the heart of the midfield so early this time around, but they will look to take ownership of the ball in the opening exchanges and invite United into a torturous game of Lion and Rat. It’s akin to an affront to their heritage, to all they stand for. Manchester United don’t play second fiddle; it hurts.
In the Premier League, United have long since been allowed to forgo a territorial base in central midfield in favour of stretching play on the flanks, and normally you’d say Barca’s full-backs occupy too high a starting position for United to rely on the wings for immediate recourse. With Alves at right-back, Park could well find himself the hunted rather than the hunter. It’s at left-back, however, where either Puyol or Abidal will start, that the onus will be on Valencia to peg them back. This is where United will most likely seek to gain advantage.
Otherwise, Barca will force them into a central battle from which only one winner will emerge. From there, it will be a question of to what extent United will content themselves with spending large swathes of the game out of possession, ready to strike on the break.
In that context, a strong case could be made for Anderson ahead of Carrick to partner Giggs in central midfield, with Park and Valencia occupying the wings in the 4-4-1-1 deployed to such great effect in the semi-final. For all Park’s (exaggerated ad nauseum) “work ethic”, he will be the most likely candidate to tag-out for Nani around the hour mark, at which point United will need to bite the bullet.
Defensively, United have been awesome, albeit with the aid of a favourable path to the final. Where they faced MET* in 2009 (96 goals), they now face the MVP (82 goals), less potent but more involved and conscious of defensive duties than the ’09 trio.
There was something of the “broken team” about MET insofar as they kept a higher and finer line between themselves and the midfield line. MVP typify the gradual shift the Pep Team has made to Total Football, with Messi in particular becoming an auxiliary defender when and if he sees fit. La Pulga has evolved into La Pulga Anatomica. There’s clearly no use in either central defender going with him – it’s up to a holding midfielder from the Wide Awake Club to sniff him out.
For better or worse, United don’t have anybody with the requisite profile to administer Pepe’s Rules on The Flea, so expect Messi to waste no time de-zoning to throw the cat amongst the pigeons. United have their number 10 of their own, with Rooney operating in the “sausage roll” where he will provide the springboard to United’s counter-attacks. Barca hold a key advantage here again, however, where Busquets has carved out a niche in shadowing deep-lying attackers. He knows what they eat for breakfast.
“Manchester United have to score; they ALWAYS score…”
Yet looking closer at it, and putting to one side the “Greatest Club Side in History” theory, there is reason to argue that the two sides are actually closer together than in 2009.
Barca, after three years of super-human excellence, are now beginning to resemble the Aesopian hare: they’re shagged. The absolute insistence to align his World Cup stars game after game against La Liga fodder - as is Pep’s wont – may come back to haunt them.
The probing tiki-taka then slips into a disguised defensive mechanism; the “sterile domination” Wenger alluded to hides a neurotic veneer.
Also, just as in Rome, where Toure Yaya barely broke sweat as a makeshift centre-back, they have little choice but to fill a round hole with a square peg. This time around, Mascherano slots in beside Pique. He’s a more accomplished defender than many believe, but he’s never faced the likes of Hernandez.
From a United perspective, this is possibly a better-suited team for a one-off final than the Ronaldo-led version of two years ago. And to win this final, let’s be clear, they’ll be prepared for a hold-up par excellence corresponding to the team’s qualities. 21 Premier League medals, a quasi-Solomonian division of goals, Rafael’s coming-of-age, and Park: the ying to Ronaldo’s yang.
From this state of affairs two predominant scenarios emerge: (1) Barca scoring midway through the second half and seeing the game out, and (2) Barca scoring midway through the second half and United equalizing in time-honoured fashion to take the game into extra time.
From there (all other things being equal), with the aforementioned fatigue seeping into the footsore Barca ranks, United would be my favourite to hem Barca back against the ropes and force the issue. In the dastardly event of penalties – and with Van der Sar’s cracking of a Basque sociologist’s code in the Moscow final in mind – United would be the team you’d fancy. Just.
It might not be the tu a tu we’d all hope for, nor the whitewash it could have been a few months ago. One club seeking to copper-fasten claims to be the greatest ever, another looking for its fourth European Cup for the simple reason that winning is its raison d’etre. Whatever happens, this final won’t lack in intensity.
1-1 over 90 minutes.