United take on Barcelona in this year’s Champions League final in what many are billing the ‘dream final’. Europe’s two best sides meet this Wednesday in Rome with United chasing their fourth European Cup win, potentially a second in succession. With world-class talent on display in both teams, and a commitment to attractive, attacking football, all the ingredients are in place for a classic final.
United arrive in Rome on the back of 25 European games without defeat and in tremendous form late-season form, both domestically and in Europe. With only long-term absentee Owen Hargreaves and the suspended Darren Fletcher missing from the match-day squad, boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest headache will be who to leave out. The manager will want to strike the right balance between countering Barcelona’s obvious attacking threat, and taking advantage of Los Cules’ weakened defensive line-up.
Somewhat surprisingly, for a squad boasting the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, United scored just 68 goals in the Premiership during 2008-9. While the Reds were the most potent home team in the country, Fergie’s men scored just 25 times on the road, reflecting a pragmatic tactical approach away from Old Trafford. With that in mind, it seems likely that Ferguson will pick a team that focuses on United’s defensive strength, while providing options for the team on the break.
Barcelona come into the game having scored more than 100 times in La Liga alone, and swept all before them in Spain’s domestic league and cup competitions. But Los Cules arrive in Rome with concerns surrounding their defence, with first choice full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended. If that wasn’t bad enough news for Barça boss Pep Guardiola, central defenders Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez are both injured and out of the match. Moreover, former Barça midfielder Guardiola must gamble on the fitness of star players Andreas Iniesta and Thiery Henry. While it seems both will start the match after taking part in recent training sessions, a thigh and knee injury respectively, mean that neither player will be 100% for the match.
United are likely to go man-for-man against Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The back five picks itself with veteran Edwin van der Sar in goal, John O’Shea and Patrice Evra at full-back and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Irishman O’Shea is likely to get the nod ahead of Gary Neville and Wes Brown at right-back, who have both only recently returned from injury, and the talented but inexperienced Rafael da Silva.
In midfield Ryan Giggs is set to start in place of the suspended Fletcher. With Giggs offering less protection for the back four than Fletcher, both Michael Carrick and Anderson will retain their places in an attempt to counter Barça’s attacking midfield three. It means no place for veteran Paul Scholes, ten years on from the final he famously missed against Bayern Munich in 1999.
Up front Ferguson is likely to stick with the semi-final winning trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park. While nominally Ronaldo is likely to start the match through the centre, the forwards will operate as a flexible three in attacking positions, with Rooney and Park offering greater protection for United’s full-backs than Ronaldo. This will mean disappointment for both Tevez and Berbatov, who are likely to remain on the bench.
Barcelona will have to shuffle their pack due to injuries and suspension. While Victor Valdes is a certain pick in goal, Guardiola’s biggest problems lie in the back four. Carles Puyol is likely to come in at right-back, with midfielder Yaya Toure alongside former United player Gerard Piqué in the centre. Guardiola will choose between veteran Brazilian Silvino or midfielder Seydou Keita at left-back.
The Barça boss is likely to gamble on the fitness of key man Andrea Iniesta in midfield, alongside Euro 2008 player of the tournament Xavi Hernandez and new Spanish cap Sergio Busquets, who will provide some counter to United’s power through the centre of the park.
Should Henry win his fitness race, he will take up the left-sided attacking slot, with Samuel Eto’o through the middle and the brilliant Lionel Messi starting from the right. Should Henry not make it, it is likely Iniesta will push further forward and Keita come into a central midfield position.
United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson, Carrick, Giggs; Park, Ronaldo, Rooney.
Barça: Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Toure, Silvino; Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets; Messi, Eto’o, Henry.