Friday, 27 May 2011

Where It All Started

Barcelona Lift the European Cup at Wembley: 20th May 1992
For Liverpool, it’s Rome. For Celtic it’s Lisbon.  For Real Madrid, its Hampden, while for Barcelona supporters the place that has a special place in their hearts is Wembley.  Barcelona return there for the first time on Saturday since Koeman’s screamer broke their European Cup duck, intent on regaining the big cup with the big ears. In their way is a team which also has fond memories of Wembley.  On top of the 9 FA Cup’s won at Wembley, Manchester United also broke their own European Cup duck with a win under the old twin towers, back in 1968.

Both of these teams will be going for their fourth win in this competition, with recent wins in this competition, and against each other.  Manchester United won the European Cup in 2008, beating Barcelona in the Semi final. One year on, both sides met in the final as a suspension ravaged Barcelona upset the odds to beat Manchester United in Rome, accidentally setting the template for their 4-1-2-3 formation that has captivated the world.

This time around Barcelona are firm favourites.  Five of their key players took part in Spain’s World Cup win last year (Pujol, Busquets, Xavi, Inniesta & Villa), while leading the line will be the world’s favourite footballer Lionel Messi – who piloted the “false 9” position in the previous European final two years ago.    Everyone knows that Barcelona will play the possession football that won them huge plaudits two years ago, with Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Inniesta pulling the strings behind the front three of Messi, Villa and possibly Pedro.  Busquets will play as the holding midfielder.  One development from 2009 is that Javier Mascherano has been deployed as a recycled central defender since his move from Liverpool, while Dani Alves is free to make the deep runs that he could not make in 2009 (due to suspension). 

Bobby Charleton lifts the European Cup at Wembley: 29th May 1968
While Manchester United are not hamstrung by suspensions, there is the suspicion that the 2010/11 team is not quite of the same vintage as the 2008 or 2009 teams.  Possibly because of this, United have reverted to 4-4-1-1 for key games in Europe this season (opposed to the 4-2-3-1 of 2007/8 to 2008/9).  It is thought that Hernandez will start ahead of Berbatov, with Rooney deployed in the second striker spot.   Apart from that, not very much is known about the exact nature of United’s starting line up or formation.  They have played the 4-4-1-1 formation, but may push the wingers up field for a 4-2-3-1 on Saturday.  No-one knows, and Ferguson (taking part in his sixth European final) is certainly keeping shtum. 

In order to beat the team many people are acclaiming as the best club side since the AC Milan team of Gullit, Van Basten & Rijkard, Manchester United have to put pressure on the Barcelona midfield.  They have to make sure that the Barcelona midfield has little time or space to get their rhythm going.  Barcelona are masters at the art of pressing themselves, and will do likewise with United.  I think as well that a 5 man midfield (or variation of) will work better than a flat 4 man midfield.  With this respect, key to Manchester United’s chances will be whether the Scotland captain Darren Fletcher makes the starting line up, as he will give the base of the midfield some solidity – which lets not forget was lacking in the 2009 final.

I think that logic dictates that Barcelona will win.  However, I think that if Manchester United start brightly and score first, then they will have an excellent chance to repeat their triumph of 1968.

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