If you would believe various pundits, the annoying debate that many football fans have been subject to this year and last – Ronaldo vs. Messi – will come to its conclusion in the UCL final in Rome. On the biggest stage in club competitions, the two most complete players in attacking football will meet head to head.
The winner will be crowned the best in the world, the loser will claim second place. Fans of the loser will say he was robbed, the winner’s supporters will smugly proclaim that the final underscored the gulf in quality.
To boil the final down to this issue would be a mistake, and would ignore the other much more important battles that will happen on May 27th. While Ronaldo and Messi are both elite, I doubt the Champions League trophy will really go to whoever plays better on that day.
First of all, neither the Argentine nor the Portuguese has an impressive record against clubs from England and Spain, respectively. An injured Messi was pretty much ineffective against Barcelona last season in the semis, and Ronaldo was marked out of the game by Barcelona, notably Gianluca Zambrotta, who ironically teed up Paul Scholes for the long range, tie-winning goal.
This year in the final however, I see more of a Barcelona’s attack vs United’s back four. Vidic and Ferdinand, as it has been repeated so often, are the best two in the game. Evra looks to be back on form. The only suspect position, and I use that term only in comparison with the other members of the back-line, is right-back for United.
This is not to take away from the offense, but the free-flowing stuff of last season has been slowed down, maybe by Berbatov’s inclusion (didn’t the United vs. Arsenal meeting last week look like the 2007-08 campaign, with Berba notably on the bench?). This season the defense has really outshone the offense, not just in the club but in the whole EPL, 4-0 loss to Liverpool excluded.
Barcelona’s attack is frightening, but currently weakened. Henry and Iniesta both are having problems with fitness, Dani Alves and Eric Abidal (unfairly) are suspended, and Rafa Marquez is out for the season. These weaknesses in defense force makeshift changes and weaken the midfield, already less flowing and lethal when Iniesta has to play as a forward for the injured Henry. If neither Iniesta nor Henry play, Pep Guardiola will have to change his “Tridente” formation for the first time this season (or else play out-of-form Bojan or Gudjohnsen), which brings me to my next point.
Everyone playing Barca since late September has known that they will run a 4-3-3 with Messi on the right, Henry on the left, and Eto’o in the middle. The midfield will include Xavi, Iniesta, and Keita or Yaya Toure. Dani Alves plays at right back (in reality reality he is an attacking midfielder), Puyol and Marquez stay in the center, unless Pique plays in which case Puyol moves out left. It’s a formula, and it has worked, but against master tacticians, it won’t. It literally came within seconds from failure against Chelsea, but a combination of slack finishing, suspect calls, and a non-existant clearance from Essien allowed Iniesta one chance that he buried in style. Hiddink knew how to shut down Barcelona, and my bet is that Sir Alex will too.
The Scot should be able to field a United side that can take advantage of both the weakness in attack simply by keeping the defense as he has all season, and exploit Barcelona’s defense problems. The right and left wings will be open all night to players with pace now that Alves and Abidal are gone, and judging by the Chelsea game, the midfield looks like it can be muscled out by the likes of Carrick and Anderson. Most importantly, if Puyol moves out left or right, the center will be horribly exposed.
Barcelona are hobbling right now, and certainly cannot field a full strength team. Messi on his day is the best in the world, but he cannot make up for the obvious defensive weaknesses. If Iniesta and Henry do return for the final however, it might not matter how weak the defense looks. If Barca show up to Rome limping in both the attacking and defending third though, I feel that Sir Alex’s carefully planned team will be celebrating at the end of the night.