Barcelona v Manchester United Preview: Champagne Wishes

Unlike the comedy of errors that Chelsea and Liverpool managed to produce in their first leg match, I have sky-high expectations for the Barcelona – Manchester United match. Barca will look to salvage something from what has been a bit of a lost season for them while United will be looking to overturn last year’s disappointing loss to AC Milan and that’s where our comparison begins. The two clubs are the only unbeaten sides in this season’s Champions League tournament so one of them will have to give but which side will it be?

Barca hold the edge in semi-final victories overall having won four of the eight previous semi-finals they have competed in while United’s nine previous semi-final appearances have yielded only two victories. Also going against United is their record against Spanish opposition in Spain. They have contested 16 matches in Spain and won only once, drawing six and losing nine.

If previous meetings between these two are to be any guage of what to expect, this ought to be another classic. The clubs met twice in the old European Cup Winners’ Cup and have twice found themselves in the same Champions League group. Each tie proved to be memorable for different reasons but for pure drama the first a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final in March 1984, was arguably the best. United overturned a 2-0 deficit in the second leg at Old Trafford. United went on to lose 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-final’s to Michel Platini’s Juventus. I have not seen the full game from 1984 so the game I most remember is the dramatic 3-3 draw from the group stage in the 1998/99 season. This match had it all and was a display of skill and style that makes football such a beautiful game.

Now, onto this year’s matchup.

Lineups and Tactics
Barcelona were given a huge boost when it was announced that dynamic forward Lionel Messi would be healthy for this fixture. Like Kaka did last year to United, Messi has the ability to single-handedly turn a game with his pace and vision. Captain and anchor of the Barca backline, Carles Puyol, is suspended for this match but Rafael Márquez should be recovered from injury and is likely to start in his place. Thierry Henry has been fighting off a fever/flu and is a doubtful starter but could play a role from the bench. One must keep in mind that Henry has scored nine goals in 18 appearances against the Red Devils.

Possible Starting XI (4-3-3):
Valdés — Zambrotta, Milito, Márquez, Abidal — Yaya Touré, Xavi, Iniesta — Eto’o, Messi, Bojan

For Manchester United, Edwin Van der Sar is fit after a groin strain and Wayne Rooney looks to have overcome the hip injury he sustained on Saturday. Both Owen Hargreaves and Anderson have recovered from minor injuries. Gary Neville and Darren Fletcher have also been named in the squad but are unlikely to start.

While United has received plenty of press for their flashy forwards, the outcome of this semi-final depends heavily on how well the back line deals with the danger posed by the likes of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry and Bojan Krki?. Manchester United trained without key defenders Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown and both are said to be a game-time decision.

It is not a stretch to say that the central defensive partnership of Vidi? and Ferdinand has been the cornerstone of United’s success in the past two seasons. This year, no team has conceded fewer goals in the Premier League and only Chelsea FC have let in less in the Champions League. Another factor will be Patrice Evra’s ability to get forward and support the attack. If he is pinned back by Messi, United may struggle to create and will be forced to rely on counter-attacks.

On the offensive side, United will again be looking for the interchanging forwards to confuse and unsettle the opposing defenders.

Possible Starting XI (4-3-3): Van der Sar — Brown, Ferdinand, Vidi?, Evra — Carrick, Scholes, Hargreaves — Cristiano Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney

Key Matchups:

Lionel Messi v Patrice Evra
As discussed above, Messi can be highly influential in setting the table for the Barcelona attack. He likes to attack from wide positions and Patrice Evra will need to contain his runs and deny him time/space when Messi has possession on the flank. However, Evra also does a lot to support the United attack as he often makes supporting runs down the wing to stretch the opposition defence and open space for the United forwards.

Xavi/Iniesta v Carrick/Hargreaves
Xavi and Andres Iniesta are the twin engines that drive Barcelona’s midfield play. Neither player gets enough credit for their hard work but if Barca has success going forward, these two will be involved. On the other side, you have another pair of talented central midfielders. Owen Hargreaves has had a hard time cracking into the United starting XI, partially due to injury, but he showed in recent performances why United spent big money to sign him from Bayern Munich.

The purist in me would like to see another 3-3 draw with lots of flowing passing and end-to-end action. However, it will largely depend on the forces at hand for both sides. If Vidic and Brown are out, I think United may be a bit more conservative, despite speaking about bringing “a positive approach” to the match. For Barcelona, they will need to come out atacking and look to build a lead that they can nurse through the second leg at Old Trafford. It’s tough to go against Barcelona at home but I have to go with the form team at the moment so look for a 2-1 United scoreline.

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