Barcelona v Man Utd Preview

When club sides Barcelona and Manchester United take the pitch tomorrow it will be the most watched sporting event of this year outside of the 2010 World Cup.  Should it not be considering it’s the biggest club match of the year in the world’s most popular sport?  The encounter will take place two years after these sides met in the Champions League final in Rome.

That match was pitted as United’s all-world player Cristiano Ronaldo versus Barcelona star Lionel Messi.  Ronaldo, is now gone.  But Messi will look to stake his claim once again as the world’s greatest footballer.

United was running rampant the first ten minutes of the match with Ronaldo smashing the crossbar early on.  However, Samuel E’to’o’s goal in the tenth minute quickly turned the game around and the Catalans never looked back as they cruised to a 2-0 victory.

The Red Devils now get a chance at redemption, although heavy underdogs.

What makes this spectacle of an event so intriguing?

How often is it that you get the two best teams in a sport competing for the ultimate prize?  Rarely do the top seeds from the NFL, NBA, and MLB square up against each for the championship.  The NCAA tournament hardly features that.  The BCS surely has its flaws.

But in this Champions League final matchup, Manchester United and Barcelona have proven they’re a step above the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game.  They each won their respective leagues with games to spare.  Both cruised through the knockout stages of the Champions League with relative ease.

Tactically, some say United manager Sir Alex Ferguson got it wrong 2 years ago.  It didn’t help the cause that mid-fielder Darren Fletcher missed the match due to suspension.  Thus causing Ferguson to start Anderson in his place, who quite frankly didn’t play well.  So the question for Sir Alex this year is not only who to start, but what formation to play them in.

For Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, the decision is much easier.  He’ll have the best midfield pair in the world with Xavi and Andres Iniesta.  David Villa and Pedro Hernandez will play up front out wide.  Sergi Busquets will act as the holding midfielder with Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, and possibly Javier Mascherano at the back.  Messi will act as the “false nine” dropping back from the center foward position picking the ball up all over the United half of the pitch.  Victor Valdes will hope to continue his outstanding season as the Barca keeper.

If Flethcer is fit, he’ll surely get the nod for United.  However, he’ll have the daunting task of trying to halt the pairing of Xavi and Iniesta.  The other midfielder will be Michael Carrick, who simply was left chasing the Barcelona midfielders in ’09.

Ji-Sung Park should start on the left wing to combat and track Dani Alves, although watch for him to be all over the pitch trying to disrupt Barca’s fluid passing.  The back four for United is strong featuring arguably the best center pairing in the world with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.  Patrice Evra will look to make his usual bursting runs down the left side of the pitch.  The right back position should feature Rafael da Silva, who will be wanting to makeup for his sending off last season in the Champions League versus Bayern Munich.

Wayne Rooney is a must up front for United.  Look for him to be all over Barcelona’s half trying to breakup the rhythm of their passing.  The two remaining outfield players will be a tougher decision for Ferguson.  If he decides to go 4-2-3-1, that will most likely leave the young Mexican Javier Hernandez out of the lineup.  This would be a difficult decision for Ferguson considering “Chicharito” has scored 20 goals in all competitions this season.

Leaving Nani out of the starting lineup would also be hard for Ferguson.  The Portuguese international has been one of the side’s best players this season.  However, the boss seems to favor Antonio Valencia who has come back very well after his gruesome leg injury in September.

In goal for United will be the Dutch veteran Edwin van der Sar.  The 40-year-old will be making his last appearance in club football as he has announced his retirement at the end of the season.  Despite his age, he is still one of the top keepers in the world.

United will definitely be comfortable with the ground they’re playing on, Wembley Stadium in London.  This is the home turf for the English national team, a pitch players like Rooney, Carrick, and Ferdinand have played on numerous times.  Not to mention this is where the FA and Carling Cups are played, finals which many United players have played in.

In the end, the final score will be determined by the 22 players on the field.  And regardless of that score, Barcelona will almost assuredly have more possession of the ball.  Since 2006, their possession percentage has risen every year in the Champions League.  It’s at an astounding 73% this year.  What United must not do is concede early as they did two years ago.  While Ferdinand and Vidic are rocks at the back together, if one of them gets caught one on one with a Barcelona attacker, it could spell trouble for United. 

United will hope to find breaks on the counter attack and expose Barcelona’s back four.  This is easier said than done, but Carrick and Valencia do have the ability to move the ball up the field quickly.  And if Ferguson decides to start Hernandez, he has more than enough pace to get behind either Puyol or Mascherano.  Not to mention Barca are a team who like to bring players foward, thus making them susceptible to the counter.

For me, the X-factor for Barcelona is Busquets.  Xavi has called him the best one-touch player on the team.  A very high compliment considering how much quality is in their side.  He’ll be in charge of starting Barca’s attack, moving the ball forward to players like Iniesta and Xavi.  Messi will try and make his usual runs towards the penalty area, a spectacular sight to see.  One pundit said the Argentine “can walk on the beach and not leave a single footprint.”  Alluding to the star’s spectacular control with the ball at his feet.

Ultimately there is something monumental at stake for both sides.  United, who secured their 19th domestic league title this year can solidify their position back atop European soccer.  A win for Barcelona means this Catalan side has a legitimate argument of being one of the top club squads to have ever stepped on the field together.

(Kick-off is set for 1:45 p.m. central on FOX from Wembley Stadium in London, England)

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