Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Preview : Champions League Final

Venue : Olympic Stadium, Rome

When did sport become more than entertainment for the idle, motion with a ball gain aesthetic appeal, disdain turn to derision, placid appreciation to fervent devotion? To many of us Barça establishing its supremacy is the victory of an ideal, purity of form establishing a legacy by its success. And so, from the global crises to the domestic issues which rule our lives, we take a step back, to partake in the fortunes of a club, of players not distantly related yet whose fortunes played out on 7140 sq metres of grass in Rome can cause heartrending agony or overwhelming ecstasy.

A treble is not unprecedented. It has been achieved before in Europe by Celtic, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and by Manchester United 10 years ago. The last, though it was not achieved in the conclusive fashion this year’s will be (where both contenders have dominated oppositions throughout the season), did serve to establish; a legacy of dominance by United in domestic competition and envy across Europe.

10 Years Ago....

It was FC Barcelona’s centenary year and Uefa in recognition of the occasion had scheduled the final of the Champions League in the Nou Camp. Sadly, Barça did not make it to the final, its compatriots in the group stages Manchester United and Bayern Munich instead contesting an engrossing encounter.

Bayern had gone a goal up early, hit the post twice, forced Peter Schmeichel into a few miraculous saves and seemed to have the game wrapped up when in the space of 120 seconds of Injury time the 2 United substitutes, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struck turning the result on its head. Earlier United had scraped through against Juventus in the semis and got through despite an unimpressive performance against Inter in the quarters.

They had won the league 10 days earlier when they overcame a disinterested Tottenham Hotspur side whose eternal rivals Arsenal finished a point behind United in the final standings. The FA Cup was added to the list of titles 4 days before the Champions League final with a 2-0 win over Newcastle, Arsenal being beaten in a replayed semifinal by a sublime Ryan Giggs goal.

The sketchy performances were glossed over as the media hailed the achievement. Ferguson and the team were placed on a pedestal from which Beckham, formerly regarded as one-dimensional and petulant was deemed invaluable, Roy Keane went from being a hatchet man to an inspirational captain and even players of limited ability like the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt basked in the unfading adulation.

The Legend and the Novice ?

Thereafter Ferguson put in place a team which defended obdurately in numbers for large parts of games and scored the greater percentage of their goals through no mean feat of imagination or skill but rather by the swinging right foot of David Beckham landing crosses on the heads of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. The spectacle of the late comeback became a regular feature in key United encounters and could be seen to play on the minds of opposition teams.

Spurred on by enthusiastic media support and regular titles long after Keane, Cole and Beckham had left, Ferguson established a Man United tradition of teams which relied on prosaic means to win games when their authority was challenged and more appealing ones when the same was well established. Barça’s footballing philosophy, in contrast, is diametrically opposite in that aesthetically appealing and attacking play is the tool and the form, the structure, the essence, and the only means to success.

Ferguson’s legend is inseparable from Manchester United just as Pep Guardiola’s is from Barcelona although each was established in a radically different manner. In his 100 years as manager (sorry 35) and 23 with Man Utd Ferguson has won countless titles and a knighthood. Pep, on the other hand, is in his debut season as manager of a senior team and while the double has added to his acclaim, much of it is founded on his performance as a player.

Cruijff once famously noted however that he never needed to pass instructions on to the pitch since Pep was already doing it for him. Guardiola, being a child of the Dream Team, possession of the ball and continuous attacking pressure are strictures he effected as a player and ones he rigidly adheres to as a manager.

Barça’s Cruijff inherited legacy of Total Football means that at any point of time during a game it is virtually impossible to say which outfield player will be in which region of the pitch. Ferguson’s formations are more rigidly structured with each player given unambiguous tasks to fulfil. Yet it is Ferguson’s formation which is harder to predict as the wily Scot has learnt to play his hand with discretion.

Recent Form and Past Encounters

Both teams’ league titles were won on the 16th of May, Man Utd playing out a goalless draw with Arsenal and Barça winning by virtue of Madrid’s loss to Villareal. In the following 2 games Barça, employing mostly players from the B squad lost to Mallorca and Osasuna while United defeated Hull City playing a similarly weakened line-up.

Previous meetings between the 2 sides have yielded 24 goals with Barça winning 2 and United 3, although United have done better in the knock-out stages of competitions. A summary of the past encounters may be found here.

Individual Matchups

Ronaldo Vs Messi

Much has been said, nay shouted from the rooftops about who is the greater player. The clash between the two on such a momentous occasion is therefore bound to become the final word in the argument.

Ronaldo is a mesmerising player, who can complete 10 stepovers in the blink of an eye, shift the ball between his feet with blinding speed, twisting and turning until the ball seems to magically appear and disappear. But such displays of bewildering (?) skill are usually carried in a forsaken area of the pitch more as an indulgence than to any useful effect. Ronaldo’s most effective weapons are not quite the sublime ones but weapons they are and present in sufficient measure to trouble any defence in the world. They may be listed as :
1. Speed
2. A swerving long range shot
3. A dangerous header
Of the three, the one that could prove the most influential on this sort of occasion could well be the header which has a habit of popping up in big games. The long range shot extending to free-kicks is a more recent development, a kicking technique previously used by Messrs. Juninho and Pirlo which makes it virtually impossible for the goalkeeper to predict which way the ball is likely to swerve.

Messi’s skills are of the more traditionally admired “ball strung to his bootlaces” dribbling variety, combined with a perfect shifting of balance between lightening quick feet. His contribution to the team by occupying more than 2 defenders at a time and thus creating space for others is often overlooked. Indeed, it seems on most occasions, the opposing team may as well play a defender as Left Winger since the effective offensive contribution is marginal due to his necessary role in tracking back to double-team Messi.

A comparison by stats is available here.

The influence of either will surely be secondary to the success of their respective teams and therefore it is quite likely that this year’s Ballon d’Or and Fifa World Player titles go to the player whose team wins the final.

Carrick Vs Xavi

An understated but perhaps more influential battle will be played out in the centre of the pitch between Michael Carrick and Xavi. The two ball distributors, each elegant and efficient in his manner compete with each other not just in being the engine for their teams but also in restricting the other’s influence.

Xavi is the heart and soul of Barça’s possession game, passing, collecting, directing movement, creating and utilising space. Carrick generally plays deeper as is English tradition, in order to cover for the defence. Consequentially, there is less freedom to his movement but yet he plays an important role in starting and supporting United’s attacks.

Other matchups worth noting include a Pique Vs Ferdinand clash where 2 defenders with excellent positional sense and composure in possession try to make the more significant contribution and a Rooney Vs Iniesta one in which the determining factor will be who provides the better linkage between midfield and forwards.

Iniesta is absolutely irreplaceable for Barça and his determination over the past week to regain fitness speaks volumes about his commitment and dedication to the team. Samy Eto’o has allowed the number of his detractors to pile up with not just poor finishing but poor overall performances as well in the last few games. He is due a goal and would obviously like to play a more pivotal role rather than just the foil to Henry and Messi.

Starting Lineups

The injuries and suspensions make the Barça formation difficult to predict while Ferguson is likely to vary his options on the basis of the strategy he adopts. The following starting lineups are predicted on the assumption of a counterattacking setup from Man Utd aiming to crowd out Barça in midfield with Barça looking to kill any counters starting in midfield.

Predicted Lineups :

Barça 4-3-3: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Caceres, Keita, Toure, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Eto’o, Henry

Man Utd 4-4-2: Van Der Sar, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, JS Park, Carrick, Anderson, Scholes, Rooney, Ronaldo


Needless to say a heavy toll has been inflicted on the Barça squad due to injuries and suspensions. Hopefully both Iniesta and Henry will be sharp and match fit which will allow Barça to lineup with their full offensive complement in place if not the defensive.

A distinct change in tactics was employed by Pep Guardiola in the Classico at the Bernebeu where Xavi and Iniesta controlled possession closer to the halfway line. This caused the Madrid defensive midfielders to push up creating space between the midfield and defensive lines, a hole for Messi to operate from and space between the defence and goalkeeper for Henry to exploit as Eto’o moved to the right to keep the left defence occupied. But it should be noted that the same strategy was not employed against Chelsea in the 2nd leg as Busquets took Toure’s place in midfield. Much as Guardiola may trust in Busquets’ ability to help retain possession he probably realises that Busquets is unlikely to provide the sort of defensive cover Yaya can in case the ball is turned over.

Man Utd do not possess a physical forward of the Drogba variety who can dominate the defence even were Berbatov to start and hence there seems little reason to push Toure into defence again. If the ball is lost on the halfway line, Cristiano Ronaldo will definitely seek to quickly gain a few yards and unleash a difficult to handle shot from 30-40 yards out. Hence the need for Yaya Toure to cover this zone and minimise such opportunities.

Such a system though is not without its drawbacks. With Messi, moving into the centre, he can no longer isolate defenders and his predominantly left sided movement means he is more likely to engage an Henry of doubtful fitness rather than Eto’o. Additionally Man Utd are likely to engage Anderson to cover just such an option, leaving Carrick, Scholes and Park to harass the rest of the Barça midfield.

By crowding the midfield, United can defend deep while still spacing out the midfielders to negate Barça’s possession. Any loose ends picked up can be quickly transmitted though Rooney to Ronaldo with the tireless Park supporting. Rooney and Ronaldo’s roaming role will have to be countered by Barça’s defensive mid and wingbacks.

Freekicks and corners have always troubled Barça who will have to deal with the powerful trio of Vidic, Ferdinand and O’Shea besides Ronaldo should they concede any. Playing Caceres given his frequent errors may be dangerous but Barça do not have any other central defenders. Sylvinho as left back tends to pull the centre back out of possession often and while there is no guarantee this will not happen with Keita, his utility is supporting the midfield makes him a better option.

While Ferguson has numerous trump cards in Tevez, Giggs and Berbatov on the bench, Pep Guardiola will be thankful for the sharp surge in the confidence and form of Bojan which gives him at least one possibly game changing offensive substitution worth employing.


That’s it then, collect all your lucky charms and hold them tight, this is about all I can type with my fingers crossed. And let us believe as Guardiola has from the beginning of the season that with the players we have and the footballing philosophy they embody, Barça only have to play to their potential and no one can stand in their way.

Prediction : FC Barcelona 2 – 1 Manchester United

kamikaze kontiki


fcbee said...

Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird

Ok, I'm in a melancholic mood. Which is a good sign! I think... No I'm sure!!! 12 hours to go!

kamikaze kontiki said...

I wanted to mention and link to barca4life's last preview which included an excellent and concise recap of the season but ended up forgetting to include it. Hope he will come over and predict a scoreline with a Man U win though :P

pep said...

barca4life has put all his money on Barcelona 1 - Manchester Untied 3. I think that's another good sign!

Wxarch said...

I'm soooooo nervous, a BARCA victory means so much to me. It is like a win for football too. Tired of hearing EPL is the best, Barca overated and Messi can't score against english. If Barca lose it gives more ammunition for these ignorant ppl to continue with their stupid perceptions.

Pls win and win well BARCA!!!! Got to get up at 2:45am to watch it, hope we win it in normal time!!!

LeónDragón Outdated said... all cules...want to call all of you out to play this song exactly 5 minutes before the game starts...know it sounds kitschy,but it's a song of a bud spencer movie,is called all for one and is all about unity...let every cules house unite with this song...

believe me,it brings luck!!!!!

barca4life said...

Man u 2 barca 1. Thats what my head says. I said it on another site before.

barca4life said...

Good thing football is not played in my head :)

R10FCB said...

just like wxarch i too have to get up at the crack of dawn to watch the final. 4 am for me. im nervous about the final, i honestlty dont know what to expect. i hope barca come home with the trophy, we deserve it.

NouBarca said...

745pm. london-uk.

1 barca; 1 football; 1 victor.



groga said...

Can't wait for the line-ups to be out.

Arby_Barca said...

I cant say anythimg till the last final score and the whistle from the ref ! Am very very nervous;

Ramzi said...

Strangely, I am not nervous. Probably this feeling will be different when I hear the CL anthem and the guys go out of the tunnel.

Probably the satisfaction I feel for the season output makes this CL title sound more as a Bonus for me.

This a recording for what happened After the game:

Caught by some Barcelona forums' Nostradamus Paparazzi.

LeónDragón said...

...zoolander...ben stiller...

Mast said...

good preview, very nervous about this evening.. but we allready completed our goals: becoming the best footballing team in the world again.. everything else is bonus.

barca4life said...

Just an update Skysportsnews is reporting that Ronaldo took a knock last night in training and his ankle needed strapping. He is expected to play

tero said...

Are Iniesta and Henry fit to play?? My prediction Barca-ManU 3-1...let's be positive, we can't lose now!!!

Exarch said...

Ferguson is a wanker, always b4 the big matches he will list Ferdinand as being doubtful, now he is adding Ronaldo to his pre-big match BS!!!!

I'm sooo nervous even typed my name wrg in the post above Wxarch when it is Exarch.

I really do hope we beat this glorified Fulham in normal time because the match starts he at around 3am and after that like with the el classico I was too excited to sleep.

Lets all unite and pray for a truly epic performance from Barca, the best of the whole season.

Meursault said...

Also very nervous!

Ditto to Wxarch, I've got a ManU supporting English friend here who fits precisely into that category.

The thing that concerns me the most about tonight is that, like before the second leg in Chelsea, everyone is just HOPING for an open game, when anyone who has seen the teams Ferguson has put out in big games this year will KNOW that they will emphasise defence and play on the counter.

I just hope that we've got a game plan to get around a parked bus within 90 minutes this time (maybe we need to draw them out). Of course, the first goal this time would also be a blessing, please no early low percentage 30 yard wonderstrikes hitting the top corner like against Chelsea at SB and against United last year!

Pep wanted a tall striker and Alves for these kinds of games. He has neither for tonight. Our hope should not be that they make it an open game, but that Pep has come up with some ingenious plan to get through their stacked defence.

Messi sitting deeper? Bojan as a 65th minute Larsson style sub if the game is a stalemate?

Visca el Barca!!!

Anonymous said...

Bojan as Larsson? hmm not a bad could be...

LeónDragón Cuate said...

...the only way and chance to beat manu today is ball posession and attack...trying only to defend would be no good idea...the only way to stop manu is to play risky and engage them...there's always the risk of counter,but,damn it,that's our style...with the defenders missing,attack is our best defence...and on a good day,we're always able to score one more than the opponent...hope for the best,but so or so,i'm proud of this lose against manu is no shame,but to win in a final against them is more worthy for me than a threesome with the last years playmates...

djoef said...

If you saw last season's semi tie, then you cannot really "expect" an open game. It would rather be a "surprise" if Ferguson came out full force (although maybe they should, with our weakened defense).

I actually hope for a closed game with us having ball possession and hoping on the guys to take out the counter attack and on one spark of genius.

omar said...

I'm a Arsenal supporter but hell i'm going for BARCA all the way man i'm predicting a 1-0 BArca Henry's goal :)

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