Barring a miracle we are set for a dream Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United. The game will be a rematch of the 2009 final which Barcelona won 2-0. Each side comes into the final in good form; they both are at the top of the table in their respective leagues, and each leads their league in goals scored.
Barcelona is perhaps the strongest club side in the history of soccer. Led by Lionel Messi, whose astonishing fifty goals this season is a record in Spain, and boasting seven of the starting eleven from Spain’s World Cup winning side, Barcelona has an unparalleled ability to possess and pass the ball and to control the flow of a game. Manchester United is a talented attacking side anchored by a solid defensive foundation, led by the world-class central defense pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, and one of the outstanding goalkeepers of this generation in Edwin Van der Sar. The following factors may help determine the outcome of the encounter.
1. Manchester United’s initial challenge will be attempting to slow down Barcelona’s lethal possession-based attack. At times the quick interplay between between Xavi, Iniesta and Messi seems to hypnotize and paralyze opponents. An interesting question is whether Sir Alex Ferguson will employ the anti-football tactics of Jose Mourinho and sacrifice Javier Hernandez to add an extra ball winner to the midfield to help Michael Carrick defend and possess the ball. Manchester United has sufficient individual talent such that the individual brilliance of Nani or Wayne Rooney might create a goal against the run of play if its midfield can sufficiently possess the ball and create opportunities on the flanks.
2. The final will be played at Wembley Stadium in London. In addition to the benefit of playing in its home country in front of a partisan crowd, it will be interesting to see if the game takes on an English flavor with its more free flowing physical soccer, or a Spanish flavor where fouls are called more closely and dives are more common. A Spanish style game will protect Barcelona’s passing midfield and perhaps lead to more free kick attempts given Barcelona’s somewhat theatrical reaction to contact. As quoted in the Spanish sports daily Marca, Ronaldo commented about Javier Mascherano “in England he never dove, and here he seems to die every time he is touched (my translation from Spanish)”. The referee UEFA chooses and the tone he sets will have a large impact on the game.
3. Manchester United is fighting for its domestic title, leading by three points with three games to play. Barcelona has virtually won La Liga, holding a comfortable eight point cushion with four games remaining. Man United must avoid fatigue and injuries, especially to their backline of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to have a realistic chance of victory.
Finals of this magnitude often flatter to deceive. My hope is Manchester United comes out attacking and attempts to beat Barcelona at its own game. My prediction is a 3-1 victory for Barcelona led by two goals from Messi. At the end of the day Manchester United lacks sufficient ball winning in the midfield, regardless of whether Hernandez is benched, to sufficiently stop the passing interchanges between Xavi, Iniesta and Messi.