Which kind of final are we going to get this season? For every 1999 or 2002 final that people still talk about there seems to be an equal number of forgettable finals (think 2003) that produce more hyperbole than high-calibre football.
This season’s final has been branded a ‘dream match’ by many pundits and on the surface it is easy to see why. The clubs met at the semi-final stage in the 2007-08 season (Manchester United winning by a 1-0 aggregate) and again in the 2008-09 final with Barcelona claiming a 2-0 victory. This meeting can be considered a tie-breaker.
The current FC Barcelona squad ranks as one of the best in recent memory with a cast of many stars. Manchester United also have many star talents but their success this season has largely come down to the spot-on utilization of the full squad by Sir Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex has not been shy in making changes to the lineup or shape of the team and he has got it right far more often than not this year.
Since the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, Manchester United have become less of a one-man show and a far more disciplined and astute tactical unit. They will need to get their tactics spot on as Barcelona play a patient, precise passing game. Barcelona hover around 65-70 percent possession in most matches and this is due to the creative trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. I don’t see any drastic change to Barcelona’s usual starting XI or their tactical approach.
To counter Barcelona, something many have tried and failed, I would fully expect to see a midfield of Ji-Sung Park, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia. It is possible another energy midfield presence such as Darren Feltcher may be preferred to Ryan Giggs but the other three should be no surprise. The much-maligned Carrick has been quiet but steady in central midfield this season. He has settled into a defensive midfield role and is one of United’s most reliable passers of the ball. Park and Valencia are tireless workers and will do exactly what is asked of them.
On the other side, the big question mark for Barcelona is the shape of their back four. You can write in Gerard Pique and Dani Alves but then who? Who will partner Gerard Pique in the middle to subdue Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez? Will it be Puyol or Mascherano? Mascherano may be better suited in terms of pace but he is not a natural central defender and could be pressured into mistakes. He is also not great defending set pieces so that may be an area for United to try and exploit. I was surprised the first time I saw Mascherano in central defence for Barcelona this season but he has performed well enough for Pep Guardiola to use him there frequently. The deciding factor is likely to be that Eric Abidal, Adriano and Maxwell are all just returning from illness or injury, so Puyol is then the most likely choice to start at the left-back position leaving Mascherano in the middle.
I expect a tight game and if United can press effectively high up the pitch and interrupt Barcelona’s rhythm, I can see them pulling off a narrow win by nicking a goal or two on the counter-attack or from a set piece.