Manchester United’s chances of beating Barcelona in next weekend’s Champions League final may come down to Sir Alex Ferguson’s selections in two or three key positions. Indeed, the Scot’s deployment of Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung could decide whether United takes or concedes the initiative at Wembley; perhaps even if the Reds secure a third Champions League title under Ferguson’s management, or not.
Both starting team and bench remain a dilemma for Ferguson, whose instincts in recent years may draw him towards a conservative selection against the Catalan giants. But if the Scot, who is competing in his fourth Champions League final, wishes to augment midfield with Fletcher, for example, then it may be at Hernandez’ expense. The dilemma is all the more acute for Fletcher’s very recent return to fitness and the Mexican’s outstanding form during the end-of-season run-in.
Ferguson’s decision could be coloured by United’s experience in 2009, where Barcelona simply passed around Michael Carrick and Anderson in the centre of the Reds’ midfield. The theory that Fletcher’s energy and destructive quality would have changed that game’s nature have long been espoused. And should Ferguson bring the Scotland captain into the side for Hernández’, Wayne Rooney will likely be asked to play as United’s lone forward.
Fletcher will face a late fitness test to see whether the Scot can take part or not. He faces potential heartbreak for a third time – the 26-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute as United won the trophy in Moscow, May 2008 and missed the 2009 final through suspension.
“Darren has had a difficult time,” assistant Mike Phelan admitted on Monday.
“A Darren Fletcher up and running and firing on all cylinders gives us a hard job of picking the team. It is never easy to come back when you have been out for so long. Now we will recover him and see where he is at in a couple of days’ time.”
But Ferguson has alternatives, including deploying the formation used against Chelsea in this season’s quarter-final, or bringing Fletcher into United’s midfield at Giggs’ expense. Should the United manager decide energy is more important than Giggs’ guile against the Catalan giants, Fletcher or Park could find themselves deployed centrally in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
That is one theory at least.
Yet, it is almost inconceivable that United will enjoy more than 40 per cent possession against Barça whatever the midfield combination Ferguson deploys. After all few, if any, opponents have been able to break up the Catalans’ ‘passing carousel’ by deploying agricultural tactics in recent seasons.
If Ferguson takes this view, he may indeed choose to focus on United’s positional play instead, asking Carrick, Park and Giggs to drop deep when needed, with Rooney augmenting midfield and Hernández attempting to run behind Barça’s atypical high defensive line. Should United enjoy enough possession, of course.
It’s a formation that will allow United to maintain the partnerships that have proven so successful in recent weeks – Rooney/Hernandez and Giggs/Carrick – and enable the former Evertonian to continue at ‘number 10’, where he has returned to form.
Elsewhere, Ferguson will probably choose between brothers Da Silva at right-back, although there is still the chance, fitness permitting, that the Scot will go for experience with John O’Shea. The remainder of Ferguson’s back-five – Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand, Namanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – picks itself.
But it is not only the starting XI that will cause Ferguson sleepless nights over the next five days. There is also fierce competition for a place on the bench, with just seven substitutes allowed in the Champions League squad. With Ferguson’s men almost fully fit up to eight of the squad will miss out on a place in the matchday party altogether.
Indeed, regular first teamers including O’Shea, Paul Scholes and Jonny Evans may be fighting for a place on United’s bench. Meanwhile Darron Gibson, £8.3 million Bébé and new goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard are likely to miss out altogether. It is not inconceivable that only one of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov will make United’s subs list, with the former-Liverpool man arguably more impactful off the bench but the Bulgarian the club’s top goalscorer.
Whatever the selection, Ferguson is keen to sure his team remains positive. It may just swing the Scot’s decision towards an attacking starting XI.
“Yes, I concede Barcelona are favourites in many people’s eyes,” said 69-year-old Ferguson.
“They have a super side, rich in experience and yet youthful enough to give them a good balance. But it is a challenge we are eager to meet. Don’t write us off. We have the players to win, too, and while praising Barcelona is something that comes naturally, we will be making our own contribution.”
“It is the biggest game of the whole year. We know what it feels like to go to the final and lose. It was one of the saddest moments of my career. I am sure all the players won’t forget that.
“We know we are facing a very, very good team and we have to be physically and psychologically ready. Against this Barcelona team you have to be intelligent. They have qualities but we will try to work on their weaknesses, expose them and try to win the game.”
And the answer to whether Ferguson’s men can rise to that challenge is just five days away.
United XI? – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Giggs, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernández
Subs? – Kuszazck, Rafael, Smalling, Fletcher, Scholes, Nani, Berbatov
Missing out? – Owen, O’Shea, Evans, Obertan, Gibson, Bébé, Lindegaard, Hargreaves, Amos, Anderson