Champ’s League Final: Prediction: United (Yikes!)

Editor’s note: No “I told you so’s” here. Basically United have to play a flawless defensive game and execute in the areas below for the win. Confidence in my prediction? 50%”

Manchester United vs. Barcelona in a rematch of the 2009 final in Rome.

Park needs to be--and should be--loud tomorrow...

I’ll take the probably very clichéd contrarian approach of suggesting that Manchester United will take this one. Barcelona certainly has the upper hand and there is not reason that their possession-oriented “attack” shouldn’t work on the divots of Wembley.

Alas, why Manchester United could win?

Here are some reasons:

Ji-Sung Park:…. The effect of Park on the game for United cannot be understated. I haven’t looked at other previews, but I would imagine that this is a central theme in most of them.

With Park, you have a player with the speed and ability to quickly jump into the offensive play faster than their marker can join, but recover on defense to stop said-marker who has now become attacker.

Park will tuck in and provide a highly effective ability to know when to double down and help on defense and will also provide a quick outlet upon a turnover. He’s the safety valve both ways.

I rate Park–and his play–of late highly.

• …and the midfield: There are few ways to neutralize Barcelona both through the manner of defense and attack.

On defense, I think you will see Alex Ferguson employ Jose Mourinho CL opener (or the Bob Bradley-Argentina if you prefer) defense whereby Manchester United will attempt to disrupt the Barcelona attack further away from the dangerous attack zone. Make a mistake higher up in the defensive third and it give the defense at least a chance to recover and negate and opportunity.

Make a mistake by sitting too deep and it Edwin Van Der Saar’s fanny pack faces a firing squad. (I just like to make fun of the fact that Van Der Saar–who is my book will go down as the best goalie at marshaling his defense–is often photographed in public with a fanny pack on.)

United through Park helping out Carrick and Fletcher (big injury question here if Fletcher plays or not, though I don’t like to think about Giggs sitting that deep.) can muster a team that’s committed to playing defense in front of a solid backline, but one that can also protect the ball instead of punting it upfield.

Which leads up to….

The vertical game, Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick: Whether it’s up the gut (Chicharito) or up the wing (Valencia), Manchester United possess the diametrically opposite attack to Barcelona that can hurt their game. United, length; Barcelona; width.

Manchester United 1st half deployment...

I think you’ll see a lot of medium range passes from Giggs, Fletcher and Carrick to Wayne Rooney in space or Antonia Valencia up the wing (no surprise here), but this is where teams typically have difficulty against Barcelona’s defense. Either they give up the ball immediately after a turnover (United is good enough in possession to seek the right pass) or they huck it up the field and play chase it down (United has the players to locate the space up the field.)

In the first half I think you’ll see the defensive unit I spoke abpit above and then in the 2nd half I think you’ll see Fletcher (who likely can’t go the whole game) give way to Chicharito who will try to drag players back and to the sideline to open up space for Giggs and Rooney.

Of course, Chicharito may be very vital just to push Barca’s defensive line back in the early going but here’s a few reasons I see the sequencing of the substitution as I do:

1) I don’t think you’re going to see Abidal at leftback for Barca. I think Puyol plays there and Mascherano plays in the center. Mascherano is nothing if not a great tracker and I think he would somewhat negate Chicharito from the outset if the youngster got the start.

Manchester United 2nd half subsitution..(Fletcher for Chicharito)

2) I don’t think Ferguson wants to see Ryan Giggs getting stuck-in deep in the central midfield for 90 minutes. I think he pushes him ahead centrally to start and then slides him back in the 2nd half.

All of this of course means that Michael Carrick has to play one hell of a game, especially with his distribution.

Conclusion: Just taking the contrarian point of view here, I go with United at “home.” I think you probably have the toughest defense that Barca has seen yet this year. If United can move the ball quickly, by air or land, to Rooney or Valencia in space–using Valencia almost like they used Ronaldo in Rome–I think they have an excellent chance of winning the day.

23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sparkie on 2011/05/27 at 3:09 PM

    Good review. i would be willing to be a crisp $1 that Sir Alex starts the game with the lineup that you have for the 2nd half. one exception is that Fabio gets the start at right back.

    United have to attack from the get go – and need Chicharito’s pace and threat to occupy the minds of the Barca defense.

    Both sides will attack…too bad United’s “12th man” Howard Webb can’t ref the game…


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/05/27 at 3:13 PM

      Toss up on that. I could see Fabio getting the start too. I should have have added that in there.


  2. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/05/27 at 3:47 PM

    I think you have Park tucked in too much. The main reason I believe he is starting is that he will do a much better job neutralising Alves than other United players.

    I don’t see Puyol playing LB – he’ll play in the centre with Pique. I see Adriano or Maxwell there, and I see Valencia driving at him.

    I also think Valdez has a huge mistake in him, whether it’s spilling a shot, flapping at a cross, or getting charged down and being forced into bad didtribution – it’s going to happen…[fingers crossed!!]


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/05/27 at 4:07 PM

      Good debate. Park’s been playing tucked in quite a bit lately, but it also really matters–and I should have disclaimed this–where Messi is receiving the ball as well.

      And, less important until they get on the attack, Rooney loves to float out to the wings (and occasionally come back and defend there).

      We shall see. A lot of different plays here. And I think most center around how Ferguson wants to deploy Ryan Giggs to be honest with you.

      When I was thinking about how Fergie might play it (and my depth of knowledge here is a fingernail’s worth of many others) I just kept thinking how Wesley Sniejder would be absolutely perfect for this team. Like Giggs, Fergie could use him as the heir apparent and just move him up and down the pitch (though not often wide) depending on the strategy.

      What I really like about this game from the fan perspective is the diametrically opposite styles.

      Barca defends at the front; United at the back
      United plays vertically; a lot of Barca’s game is horizontally
      Man United has an excellent keeper; Barca, not so much
      Barca likes to keep their forward narrow and their striker wide; United’s forwards like to go wide.
      Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs cheated on their wives; Pique only has eyes for Shakira
      United women are ______; Barca women are ______

      Okay, got carried away there.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/05/27 at 6:53 PM

        The other thing that I should have said is who picks up Messi when he plays the False Nine? I cannot see Ferguson instructing Vidic or Ferdinand to follow him leaving a gap. So does this responsibility fall on Carrick’s shoulders? Is he up to it?

        Also, most teams don’t stand toe-to-toe with Barca, and defend with numbers, forcing Barca to circulate the ball from side-to-side.

        It will be interesting to see how quickly United can transition from regaining possession into a meaningful attack. And to see Rooney’s role when United don’t have the ball. Will he be tasked with interupting Busquets so Barca don’t have a 3 v 2 in the middle?

        Similarly, when United do have the ball, and Rooney drops deep, who tracks him?

        I genuinely worry that Fabio loses his cool in a dangerous area of the pitch.

        I also worry about Michael Owen calling himself a European Champion [on top of a suspect PL Champion claim]!


        • Posted by dth on 2011/05/27 at 7:30 PM

          Guessing Busquets marks Rooney. The more interesting matchup for me–the defining matchup of the game, perhaps–is Chicharito vs. Pique/Puyol. Is Puyol’s recovery pace 100%? If it’s not, it complicates Barca’s life quite a bit: their style is so dependent on that high offside line that Chicharito’s pace provides problems even when, I suspect, Puyol/Pique are healthy. They’re not that healthy, so Chicharito will be a big test. Consider that Theo Walcott always gives Barca trouble, and Hernandez > Walcott.

          There isn’t an obvious marker for Messi, which is partially down to the drabness of the central midfield Ferguson’s assembled. I’m guessing strengthening the midfield–Rodwell, maybe?–will be a task for the transfer market. But obviously that’s a while away. Maybe Fletcher?


          • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/05/28 at 8:52 AM

            I don’t have the stats, soit’s just my opinion, but I do not think Henandez is as quick as Walcott – he maybe over 5 metres, but not over a longer distance, say 20 or 30. Plus, I don’t think I have ever seen Hernandez run at a player, or change direction with the ball at speed.

            Fletcher is not match fit.

            Rodwell will be a good player, but he’s not good enough to play for in the centre for United – yet.


            • Posted by dth on 2011/05/28 at 12:13 PM

              Hernandez doesn’t really dribble at guys, but his acceleration/overall speed is excellent. Maybe not at Walcott’s level, but he was the fastest player at the World Cup.

          • Posted by Martin on 2011/05/28 at 10:22 AM

            “There isn’t an obvious marker for Messi, which is partially down to the drabness of the central midfield Ferguson’s assembled.”

            Care to name me an obvious marker for Messi from any midfield, drab or not, in the World?


            • Posted by Jared on 2011/05/28 at 10:47 AM

              Pepe for Real Madrid was doing a pretty solid job of it until Dani Alves did what Dani Alves does and got Pepe sent off.

    • Posted by Mario on 2011/05/27 at 5:36 PM

      Valencia is not getting through Abidal.


      • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/05/27 at 9:20 PM

        I think you’ve got that wrong. Valencia is probably playing the best he has in the past 18 months–and he’s playing defense.


        • Posted by sparkie on 2011/05/27 at 9:45 PM

          agreed. if valencia creates two goals tmrw – and consistently torments barca down the right flank, no utd fan will be surprised. in fact, valencia’s game is one of those subtle things to watch – as it may very well turn the game on its head.


      • Posted by dth on 2011/05/27 at 9:55 PM

        Plus that: really, Eric Abidal? Great story but I’m guessing Barca wants to upgrade that position over the offseason.


        • Posted by Patrick on 2011/05/28 at 8:57 AM

          You don’t know much about the team then 😉

          Abidal was an absolute beast before the tumor, both at CB and LB. With the way Pep prizes flexibility in his players, he isn’t going anyway unless he retires or relapses.


      • Posted by Jared on 2011/05/28 at 1:06 AM

        A fully healthy Abidal would be a tough test for Valencia but he’s nto fully healthy. Valencia is also in great form and full of confidence just ask Ashley Cole.


  3. 50 50 I say, Barca is the better team passing, but with J Park and Anderson in the mid will put a lot of pressure. Most teams that have scored on Barca have been on rushing attacks right after defending and this is what Man U do best. Plus it also helps that they will be playing in England, a big advantage for Man U. If they where playing in another country I would say 60-40 in favor of Barca.


  4. Posted by adam wilde on 2011/05/28 at 4:57 AM

    eric abidal is not the toughest test valencia will have faced. lets not forget 2 weeks ago he was tearing ashley cole to pieces who is the best left back going. the problem is breaking through the midfield and pushing men forwards to attack barcas defence which isn’t anywhere near as good as their goals against suggest. they are well protected by the midfielders keeping the ball well and pique wasn’t good enough to make uniteds defence. with valencia rooney and chicharito i think united have a chance to go at barca with speed but united’s midfield is going to have to have a very good day.


  5. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/05/28 at 7:35 AM

    I wonder if the Wembley grounds-staff will do United a favour by not cutting the grass so short or watering the pitch just before kick-off. That would hinder Barcelona’s ability to zip the ball about as quickly as they would like…


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2011/05/28 at 7:37 AM

      @GeorgeCross — I think the Wembley pitch impact cannot be understated. That is the worst pitch in the world, grass cut or not.


      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/05/28 at 8:46 AM

        Wembley is now Desso – hybrid between synthetic and natural grass [same as the Emirates]. Apparently, it’s supposed tobe top-notch now…


      • Posted by dth on 2011/05/28 at 12:14 PM

        Every time I watch a match at Qwest Field I disagree. Though Qwest doesn’t have the same reputation for injuring players, to be fair.


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