Saturday is a chance for redemption for Sir Alex Ferguson. Two years ago on that fateful night in Rome, Manchester United succumbed to a 2-0 defeat in a final which has been privately exasperating the manager. Barcelona overran the Red Devils in the centre of the pitch and it has been said that Michael Carrick is only just starting to rediscover that consistency which vacated him after that game.
United come into this match after a title-winning campaign brandished as lacking ‘fantasy’, but perhaps that will put them in good stead against a team who have it in abundance. Trying to play Barça at their own game will generally result in defeat, but with dogged determination, team full of energy and a potent striker, United have a great chance of reversing the disappointment from 2009.
Despite claims that we might be witnessing one of the greatest teams ever in the Catalans, they still have their flaws, and Ferguson knows if he can exploit them and more importantly take their chances, then United are one of the best teams to sit back and play on the counter-attack when protecting a lead.
After a gruelling season, and despite Pep Guardiola resting his players in the past few games, fatigue has hit the La Liga champions since the start of the year with their small squad. Captain Carles Puyol has had a troublesome knee injury which has disrupted his second half of the season, and with his questionable fitness, Javier Mascherano could be played in that role. The rusty Puyol/out of position Mascherano will need to be targeted and that right side could be a great chance for United to cause damage.
With Barça encouraging their full-backs to play as wingers, the two centre-half’s push out wide, allowing Sergio Busquets to drop deep, making a 3-4-3 formation when in possession. Wayne Rooney’s role will be important to making sure Busquets cannot influence the game. Busquets role within the team is incredibly underrated, and his one touch football is integral for the teams ‘tiki-taka’ style. By Rooney dropping deep to annul the Spaniard’s influence, it exposes a huge gap between the two centre-backs. One thing both Puyol and Gerard Pique lack is pace, and Javier Hernandez can exploit this with ease. Ferguson might be tempted to play Rooney up top instead and employ another midfielder in the middle, but by using Hernandez, it will help to retreat Barça knowing their high pressure and high defensive line system will be incredibly risky against Chicharito’s raw speed.
A place where the Red Devils can really get at their opponents is on the wings. Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia will be used because of their tactical awareness and fitness, but their attacking influence on the game will be important. Despite David Villa and especially Pedro Rodriguez being great at pressuring the opposition’s defenders when without the ball, they are not the best at tracking back. With Dani Alves marauding up field as a second winger, there will be huge space left behind him, and Patrice Evra will need to be disciplined with his offensive runs, but on the counter-attack he can utilise this well.
Left-back is hard to identify who will play as there are three contenders, but with Eric Abidal’s recent medical problems, Maxwell should be given that role. Despite whether those two or Adriano play, they are not the strongest going forward, and with Villa playing as an inside-forward, Valencia will have an easier job than usual. After his fantastic performance neutralising Ashley Cole, the Ecuadorian is more likely to play ahead of Nani because of his consistency. His raw pace and crossing ability will make him a danger man, but unlike Nani, he does not possess a goal threat.
Ferguson recently said failing to take their chances was the biggest disappointment for United in Rome and giving away sloppy goals. The triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez are world-class, and if you can nullify one of them, then it can go a long way towards winning you the match. “What we have to do is find a solution to the Xavi-Messi-Iniesta problem. Everyone is searching for that because they are outstanding footballers, but we have our share too.” Said Ferguson.
Messi playing in the ‘false 9’ role will cause the biggest problems for United. Does one of the centre backs follow him? Does Carrick decide to stick with him and thus leave Xavi free? A man marking role could stop him to a certain point, as Pepe recently demonstrated in the ‘El Clasicos’, but United do not have anybody who could play that role. The importance of stopping Xavi dictating the game however will be the likely priority. If Carrick or even Rooney can stop him having much time on the ball it will help to encumber his threat. This will lead to Messi dropping deeper because of the lack of service, and despite his obvious gift of dribbling at pace, United would rather he was on the halfway line than their penalty box.
Iniesta’s role within the team is almost as a deep-lying attacking midfielder. He will start alongside Xavi, but will look to support Messi or even move into Villa’s role once he cuts inside. Fletcher’s energy will be tested with his movement, and it would not be a surprise to see Anderson come on late in the game to continue that role once the Scot becomes understandably tired.
Despite Villa’s recent struggles in front of goal, only 2 in his last 19 games, he could be the match winner at Wembley. In the recent big games Fabio da Silva has been given the nod over his brother Rafael da Silva, but both of them would seem a risky choice to play, especially with their tendency to give away silly free-kicks, although the former is not as bad a culprit as the latter. The experienced John O’Shea would seem the more logical choice because of his consistency, but with his lack of pace, Villa can expose him when cutting inside. This may lead to Ferdinand pushing out wider or Valencia having to play far deeper, which can expose a huge gap for probably Messi to exploit.
The most important battle will be in the middle of the pitch. Ferguson has said he has learnt from his mistakes, but the tough decision will be who to use. With Rooney playing in that defensive ’10 ‘role, he can act as another midfielder, so United can get away with two players to try to stop Xavi and Iniesta. Ryan Giggs and Anderson have both put in some fantastic displays in the past month, with the former noticeably being the match winner in the Quarter-Final tie against Chelsea, while the latter was on song against Schalke in the second leg of the Semi-Finals.
Despite this, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are the likely two to be picked. Despite a recent bug, Fletcher completed 90 minutes against Blackpool and his energy and tackling ability will make him pivotal. He was sorely missed in the 2009 final, and despite Anderson having the attributes to play that role, the experience of the Scot will be important; a man who has become the Red Devils big game player.
Carrick’s role will be to sit deep, stay in the key territory zones and hope to use the gap between Barça’s midfield and defence to spray long-range passes. Despite not being a natural defensive midfielder like Owen Hargreaves, Carrick has the discipline to sit deep and help retain possession, something which United will need to ensure they use strategically, because Barca do not give it up without a fight.