Editor’s note: No “I told you so’s” here. Basically United have to play a flawless defensive game and execute in the areas below for the win. Confidence in my prediction? 50%”
Manchester United vs. Barcelona in a rematch of the 2009 final in Rome.
I’ll take the probably very clichéd contrarian approach of suggesting that Manchester United will take this one. Barcelona certainly has the upper hand and there is not reason that their possession-oriented “attack” shouldn’t work on the divots of Wembley.
Alas, why Manchester United could win?
Here are some reasons:
• Ji-Sung Park:…. The effect of Park on the game for United cannot be understated. I haven’t looked at other previews, but I would imagine that this is a central theme in most of them.
With Park, you have a player with the speed and ability to quickly jump into the offensive play faster than their marker can join, but recover on defense to stop said-marker who has now become attacker.
Park will tuck in and provide a highly effective ability to know when to double down and help on defense and will also provide a quick outlet upon a turnover. He’s the safety valve both ways.
I rate Park–and his play–of late highly.
• …and the midfield: There are few ways to neutralize Barcelona both through the manner of defense and attack.
On defense, I think you will see Alex Ferguson employ Jose Mourinho CL opener (or the Bob Bradley-Argentina if you prefer) defense whereby Manchester United will attempt to disrupt the Barcelona attack further away from the dangerous attack zone. Make a mistake higher up in the defensive third and it give the defense at least a chance to recover and negate and opportunity.
Make a mistake by sitting too deep and it Edwin Van Der Saar’s fanny pack faces a firing squad. (I just like to make fun of the fact that Van Der Saar–who is my book will go down as the best goalie at marshaling his defense–is often photographed in public with a fanny pack on.)
United through Park helping out Carrick and Fletcher (big injury question here if Fletcher plays or not, though I don’t like to think about Giggs sitting that deep.) can muster a team that’s committed to playing defense in front of a solid backline, but one that can also protect the ball instead of punting it upfield.
Which leads up to….
• The vertical game, Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick: Whether it’s up the gut (Chicharito) or up the wing (Valencia), Manchester United possess the diametrically opposite attack to Barcelona that can hurt their game. United, length; Barcelona; width.
I think you’ll see a lot of medium range passes from Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick to Wayne Rooney in space or Antonia Valencia up the wing (no surprise here), but this is where teams typically have difficulty against Barcelona’s defense. Either they give up the ball immediately after a turnover (United is good enough in possession to seek the right pass) or they huck it up the field and play chase it down (United has the players to locate the space up the field.)
In the first half I think you’ll see the defensive unit I spoke abpit above and then in the 2nd half I think you’ll see Fletcher (who likely can’t go the whole game) give way to Chicharito who will try to drag players back and to the sideline to open up space for Giggs and Rooney.
Of course, Chicharito may be very vital just to push Barca’s defensive line back in the early going but here’s a few reasons I see the sequencing of the substitution as I do:
1) I don’t think you’re going to see Abidal at leftback for Barca. I think Puyol plays there and Mascherano plays in the center. Mascherano is nothing if not a great tracker and I think he would somewhat negate Chicharito from the outset if the youngster got the start.
2) I don’t think Ferguson wants to see Ryan Giggs getting stuck-in deep in the central midfield for 90 minutes. I think he pushes him ahead centrally to start and then slides him back in the 2nd half.
All of this of course means that Michael Carrick has to play one hell of a game, especially with his distribution.
Conclusion: Just taking the contrarian point of view here, I go with United at “home.” I think you probably have the toughest defense that Barca has seen yet this year. If United can move the ball quickly, by air or land, to Rooney or Valencia in space–using Valencia almost like they used Ronaldo in Rome–I think they have an excellent chance of winning the day.