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Champions League final 2011: tactical preview

May 23, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 31 comments

With the Champions League final approaching, Sir Alex Ferguson must find answers to several key tactical questions ahead of the game at Wembley next weekend – from Manchester United’s formation, to dealing with Barcelona’s plethora of attacking options. In the first of a week-long series of build up articles, Rant’s Jay Shon looks at the key tactical decisions facing United ahead of the final…

With United generally being more defensive in Europe than in domestic games – Ferguson’s side is yet to concede away from home in the Champions League – one might be tempted into thinking that United might go for a 4-3-3.  Indeed, the Reds have used the formation featuring two ball winners and a deep-lying midfielder as the midfield trio in recent years.

However, with Darren Fletcher likely to miss the game after missing much of United’s run-in, Ferguson’s squad lacks a genuine ball winner in midfield to attempt the system. In addition, the second ball winner – Anderson or Darron Gibson – is known to squander possession. It is a sin that cannot be tolerated against Barcelona where possession comes at a premium.

In fact United is more likely to line up in a shape similar to the side’s that faced Chelsea and Shalke in previous rounds, although not in a 4-4-1-1 system.  It is a formation that requires wide players to work alongside central midfielders, as opposed to playing as pure attacking midfielders. Such placement will allow Barcelona’s full-backs too much time and space. Indeed, one of the reasons United lost the recent Arsenal game is because Nani and Ji-Sung Park couldn’t get at the Arsenal full-backs. The mistake cannot be replicated against Barça whose full-backs are even more dangerous than Arsenal’s. To counter, United must deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, pushing both Valencia and Park further forward.

With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs expected to play, ball winning is a concern for Ferguson. However, Park, Valencia and Wayne Rooney all do plenty enough running and tracking back to cover for lack of a dedicated ball winner in the central midfield.  Ultimately, United’s formation will be key – the Reds lost the 2009 final against Barcelona thanks, frankly, to the baffling 4-4-2 shape. Ferguson must not repeat the same mistake.

Meanwhile, United must also counter key Barcelona threats. Lionel Messi is acknowledged to be the most dangerous man in football and stopping the Argentinean is essential to a United victory. In the previous meeting, Messi was a deployed as a “false 9,” a centre forward who drops deep, to great effect. United could not cope with his movement and Messi was left free for majority of the game. There are no excuses this time as Messi has been used solely in the role this season. Ferguson and his players should be well prepared.

Perhaps the most obvious solution, since Barça plays with a lone forward, is to have one of United’s centre-backs to push into midfielder to meet Messi. However, with David Villa playing on the shoulder of last defender, leaving a gap in defence might not be the best response. Should United choose to take this route, full-backs Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva must either play extremely defensively to keep numbers at the back, or offensively, pinning back Barça’s wingers.

Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to play a high line and deny Messi the space to turn. United will be susceptible to quick balls over the top or exquisite through balls, both of which Barça are very capable of, but it’s a tactic that will work if United can maintain a decent amount of possession.

This Messi conundrum is caused because United’s midfield trio is matched by Barcelona’s inverted triangle, leaving no free man in either side’s midfield. It might just be that Michael Carrick, the more defensively aware of United’s central midfield duo, will have to drop deep every now and then to pick up the little Argentinian.

Another principal tactical threat to United comes in the shape of Dani Alves, who is widely considered to be the best attacking right full-back in the game. Given Sir Alex’s usual tactics over the years, Park will almost certainly be deployed to do a defensive job on the Brazilian. However, the gap that Alves leaves behind by him also presents an attacking opportunity for United. Barça play a very high line, which is compounded by the gap left in the Catalans’ right channel. It leaves Barça defense vulnerable to pace of Javier Hernández and Rooney. In fact, it might be worth a gamble by deploying Nani on the left to aggressively take advantage of this opportunity.

Champions League Final 2009: a tactical retrospective

May 6, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 35 comments

Barcelona vs Manchester United, Stadio Olimpico, Rome. 27 May 2009.

The 2009 Champions League final, which will be repeated at Wembley in 22 days time, resulted in a hugely disappointing loss to Barcelona in the final. Rant looks back on that final and wonders whether Manchester United will make the same tactical mistakes again?

Both teams lined up as expected; United missed out on Darren Fletcher after Scotland captain’s unfortunate booking in the semi-final with Arsenal. Meanwhile, an injury crisis forced Barcelona into fielding a makeshift back-four including Yaya Touré in central defence.

For United, Cristiano Ronaldo led the line, with Sir Alex Ferguson deploying Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung in wide positions, aiming to contain Barça’s fullbacks. Barça used Lionel Messi in the now familiar “false 9” role, forcing Samuel Eto’o wide.

Surprisingly, United initially lined up in 4-4-2 with Ryan Giggs playing as a supporting striker – it was perhaps an attempt to press and take the game to Barça, although Giggs floated too much to get a sense of how United lined up at any given time.

United started the game brightly though with Victor Valdes saving an excellent Ronaldo free kick early in the game. After all, the Reds had been pre-match favourites.

Eto’o and Messi kept changing position as game settled into a pattern, which caused United considerable problems. Ultimately when Messi dropped deep in the ninth minute, not a single United midfielder picked him up. The Argentinean pulled Andreas Iniesta’s marker out of position, which afforded the Spanish international a free dribble, eventually allowing Eto’o to score past Edwin van der Sar at the near post.

The goal could have easily prevented had United maintained a more disciplined shape.

United persisted with a 4-4-2, (see figure 1, below) which Barça negated by simply passing around the oncoming Red midfielders. The shape also meant that Park and Rooney had to form a second line of defence with United on the back foot. It took the pair away from Barcelona’s full-backs, enabling Puyol and Sylvinho’s influence on the game to grow.

Figure 1

United was unable to cope with Barça’s relentless pressing. United chances were then limited to long balls down the flanks, while Messi was also left without a marker for most of the game (see figure 2, below).

Lack of organised pressing, resulting from United’s rather limiting formation, allowed Barça to get hold of the game. United players could not abandon a post without leaving a an opponent free, while Barcelona stroked the ball around freely. United sorely missed a dedicated ball-winner.

By the end of first half, United swapped Giggs and Rooney’s positions to little effect. In another change, the half-time interval saw Carlos Tevez’s introduction at Anderson’s expense. Giggs was pushed deeper to maintain a 4-4-2ish shape and again Messi was to left roam free by United.

Figure 2

Sir Alex soon substituted Park for Dimitar Berbatov allowing Ronaldo to occupy a more familiar left-wing role. With United enjoying some success on the wings, it was a move that made sense, also introducing some height to the penalty box.

The changes were soon negated though, with Messi scoring a free header in the 69th minute; he had been left without a marker for much of the game. The player’s excellent movement and Xavi Hernandez’ exquisite cross should be commended but Ferguson must also take some of the blame for picking a shape that left the most dangerous opposition player free to do as he wished.

After the second goal, Barça comfortably saw the game out.

While it is true that almost the whole United side had an “off day”, Ferguson’s team was also hampered by frankly baffling tactics. United lost the midfield battle – a failure to be placed on the Scot’s head, who decided to play two central midfielders, including Anderson and Michael Carrick. Park’s headless running on the wing was also a factor of United’s shape.

United lost because for two reasons: the team shape and a complete lack of pressing. The question is – will United repeat the same mistake again on 28 May?

Poll: will United beat Barcelona?

May 5, 2011 Tags: , , , Polls 30 comments

Manchester United’s progression to the Champions League final, to be held at Wembley on 28 May, has surprised many; perhaps even some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s players. Despite the relative lack of ‘stardust’ in the United squad, in a season of turmoil surrounding star player Wayne Rooney, United has exceeded many expectations, including those of this website. Indeed, Ferguson must take huge credit for United’s progress to the final, with the team now greater than the sum of its parts.

Meanwhile, Barcelona’s “passing carousel,” to use Ferguson’s colourful description, has been described as the best football on the planet. It was far too good for United in the 2009 final in Rome. Some pundits have gone further and claim that the Catalan giant now boasts the best football team ever.

But in a season of surprises will United pull off another one and beat Barça in the final?

Will United beat Barcelona in the Champions League final?

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Time to think again about United

April 15, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 63 comments

Popular opinion has it that the current Manchester United side is one of the worst that Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled in the Premier League era; it’s a criticism repeated often throughout the season. Think back to the late goals conceded against Fulham and Everton early in the season, or the draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, or the much publicised inability – until recently at least – of United to win away from home. Each perceived failure has bolstered the belief that United’s current position owes more to poor quality competitors, than the Reds’ high quality performances. This team, it is said, is not a ‘great’ United side.

But is it that simple?

On 29 November 2010, Barcelona delivered one of the great performances in the modern era against their biggest rivals – Real Madrid. In a match containing 11 world champions, the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, and the last two managers to lift the Champions League, it was Barcelona who delivered a scintillating performance of skill, imagination, and five unanswered goals. It was genuinely imperious from a side that has won every major trophy entered in the last two years. Moreover, Barcelona is in a fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final and is on course for a third consecutive La Liga title.

Barcelona is the benchmark – not only the success that the club has achieved under Pep Guardiola, but the manner in which it has been achieved – by playing some of the consistently best attacking football seen in the last twenty years. Barça has an incredible 84 points from 31 league games this season, scoring 85 goals and conceding just 16. True greatness.

Ferguson’s latest incarnation, as Didier Deschamps recently pointed out, may lack the ‘stardust’ of previous United sides, and it also lacks the fantasy of a side containing Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta and David Villa. But can greatness be defined in other ways?

Certainly, a cursory look at the statistics makes for some interesting reading. United has scored 70 goals in 32 league games this season. The United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo scored 80 in 38 games in 2007/08; the treble winning side of 1998/99 also managed 80 goals. In statistical terms at least, United’s current attack is comparable to those famous teams.

United’s home record in the league this season reads 15 wins from 16 games, with 42 goals scored and just nine conceded. And while much has been made of United’s away form, only Arsenal has picked up more points on the road this season. In the Champions League, United has conceded just three goals in 10 games, and none in five away games. The side also remains unbeaten. In fact, United has only been beaten on four occasions this season in all competitions.

Of course, many of the performances this season, particularly away from home have been average at best. Think back to the games at Sunderland, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and worst of all, Liverpool. It is, of course, possible to recall equally dire performances from United every season. It is also true that on many occasions United has dug deep to secure draws or victories when it seemed unlikely – wins at West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham United spring to mind.

True, when compared to the artistry of Barcelona, the current United side looks humble but perhaps its qualities can be defined in other ways. There is something heroic about the way United has seemingly defied the odds this season. The late winner with ten men at home to Bolton Wanderers, or equally later victory secured against Wolves, the stunning goal to win the Manchester derby, and the victory at home to Chelsea on Tuesday.

On Tuesday Chelsea started well, and like many teams this season, made United look uncomfortable. However, United not only scored first but having conceded an away goal Park Ji-Sung scored within a minute to seal the victory. A perfect microcosm of United’s season.

And all this has been achieved despite a plethora of injuries, poor performances and off-the-field problems. Rio Ferdinand has been dogged by injuries, meaning he has only started 21 games in all competitions this season. Antonio Valencia has missed much of the season after a sickening ankle injury. And at various times United has managed without a dozen players, and recently only had four fit defenders to choose from against West Ham.

While some have excelled, others have suffered poor seasons, including Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and, until recently at least, Rooney. And with Rooney’s contract saga, bans for Ferguson and the former Evertonian, it has been a turbulent season off-the-pitch. The drama serves only to prove United’s character.

Herein lies the point about greatness – it comes in different forms. While there is greatness in defeating Real Madrid 5-0 in one of the most complete team performances in a living memory, there is also greatness in a team whose sum is more than its parts. There is greatness in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta but also in those less valued; Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, whose collective effort has elevated United’s performances. There is also greatness in longevity: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, who defy age each week.

But most of all, there is greatness in the manager. Ferguson has worked with better individuals but has moulded a unit as strong as any he previously created and a tactical system that highlights the team’s strengths and manages to overcome its weaknesses.

Of course, United hasn’t won a trophy yet and if the team ends the season without silverware nine months of endeavour will have been for nothing. But it is also true that this team stands on the verge of something we can truly call great.  While it would be a different kind of great to Barcelona, it would be equally special.

Barça 0 – 1 Market

December 12, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 5 comments

Some things in football are sacrosanct. Michael Owen has no place in a Manchester United team. The Football Association is populated by bumbling idiots. FIFA’s executive committee follows the money. And FC Barcelona will not take cash for shirt sponsorship. Until now. Hang up the wreaths. Pay your respects. Football. R.I.P.

One of those tenets ended on Friday when Barcelona broke with 125 years of traditional and accepted a mammoth new shirt sponsorship from the Qatari Foundation – read the al-Thani Royal Family – worth around £25 million per season over the next five years. It’s the richest shirt deal in history in the midst of the deepest global downturn since the 1930s.

Running from the 2011/12 season, Barcelona’s shirt will now bare the foundation’s logo in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. But it’s a decision that is unlikely to rest easily with the club’s supporters, prompting criticism that the new board has sold out to the perils of the market. A decision defended by a club that is millions in debt.

“It is not a commercial brand but a non-government organisation in a country that wants publicity through education and sport, and, as everybody knows, through organising the 2022 World Cup,” said club vice-president Javier Faus.

“Barcelona needs the money to face up to our €420 million debt.”

Yet, it represents another major coup for the Qataris, who secured the rights to the 2022 World Cup at FIFA 10 days ago. If convincing 22 old-aged FIFA delegates that holding the World Cup in a country with no football tradition, during the summer when temperatures regularly exceed 40*C, was hard enough, then Qatar buying its way on to Barcelona’s shirt trumps even that.

Not that financial pressure doesn’t exist of course. Debt or no debt. The success, glamour and global profile of the Catalan outfit has created an environment in which a huge deal was always possible at a club owned and run by the fans.

Yet, the cash has always been turned down whatever the financial rewards of globalisation. Moreover, Los Cules paid UNICEF £1.5 million per season from 2006 onwards simply for the privilege of displaying the United Nation’s Children’s Fund logo. Those that viewed the UNICEF deal as a stalking horse the real deal have been proven correct.

For many United supporters this act of conciliation with the market represented the antipathy of everything the Glazers brought to Old Trafford in 2005. The over-arching obsession to generate new revenues to cover the outrageous indebtedness that the American family fostered on United caused genuine anger. So much so that thousands of supporters founded their own club – FC United – in Barcelona’s image.

While each of those clubs bookends the football spectrum, at their heart lies – or lay – a philosophy that fans not commerce comes first. That principles, not profit, is more important. That each is more than a club, it is a philosophy and a way of being.

Perhaps worse than selling this dream down the river, Barcelona has sold out not to some random bank with aspirations of global penetration or an increase in brand value – whatever that means – but an absolute monarchy with a shocking record on human rights. Barcelona, a club that grows its own; founded on the principal of mutuality and internal development, now beholden to mineral wealth’s fascination.

For those supporters who remember a time when football wasn’t dominated by finance, global television and the requirement to ‘exploit the brand’, Barcelona’s romanticism held much appeal. Indeed, this site carried an ode to a club which seemed – despite recent financial mismanagement – to understand the very core of football. When so many clubs have become entertainment businesses, United included, Barcelona stood tall as a family business.

No longer.

Supporters must at least be grateful for the mutuality enshrined in the club’s charter. One wonders whether the club could withstand the full assault of the globalised market and remain independent otherwise.

Indeed, Pep Guardiola – Mr. Barcelona – seemed a reluctant proponent of the new deal. Necessity, he said, was at its root.

“We must take into account that the numbers at the club are not quite right, and I am hoping that they will recover and improve,” said the astute and intelligent, 39-year-old coach.

It’s an argument that could justify ticket price rises, stadium naming rights and, in dreadful market speak, refinancing.

The day money came before principles. The day the football died.

Fergie praises Barça but misses the point

November 19, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson says that Barcelona’s model is the one to aspire to and that his dream was once to coach the Catalan side. Ideologically and perhaps most importantly – the ownership model – means Barça is a club that many Manchester United supporters admire. The clubs share a common history but a diverged present.

Many aspects of each club’s management over the past 20 years is similar though: the commitment to – mostly – attacking, entertaining football and a focus on developing young players in particular. No wonder then that Ferguson is so enthused when speaking of the Catalan club.

“Barcelona is the role model,” Ferguson told a conference in Qatar this week.

“I thought of the possibility of coaching there. It is a model for players and holds a philosophy that I like. It’s the model to follow

“The ideology, their philosophy – the whole thing is fantastic. I’d have loved to have gone to Barcelona at one time in my life. That would have been a dream.”

Had Ferguson taken the chance to coach in Barcelona he would not have been the first Brit to grace Camp Nou. Barça’s history is replete with a touch of British influence, from the club’s first director Walter Wild and the Parsons brothers in 1899, to Bobby Robson, Gary Linekar, Steve Archibald and Terry Venables in the 1980s and ’90s.

Barça’s history predicates the philosophy Ferguson so admires. While today’s side adheres to the tika-taka football that has become an obsession in Catalonia, it is the concept of the socio – the member – that has underpinned the club for more than a century. Today, as on the club’s foundation in 1899, each member has an equal vote in presidential elections, continuing founding member Joan Gamper’s vision of building a collective identity.

More than just football, much of Barça’s identity stems from a suspicion of centralism in Spanish politics, as much as the rivalry with Real Madrid. Those visiting Camp Nou cannot but be struck by the Catalan nationalism that pervades the club and the sense of cultural and political separation from the Castilian élite in Madrid.

In many ways this cultural decentralisation is mirrored in Manchester where supporters in spirit, if not structurally or politically, often feel a common identity. After all, the Republik of Mancunia banner than hangs from the Stretford End is more than a soliloquy to a common North West identity.

Structurally, United began in 1878 – as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club – as a society too. Workers at the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath were encouraged to play team games, not long codified in the nation’s public schools and popularised in folk culture.

The Heathens’ first pitch near railway sidings hosted, first, games against other local amateur sides then eventually more serious competition.

By 1886 the side was packed with what would later be recognised as professionals. Seeking election to the newly established Football League in 1888, Heath planned to extend its ground at North Road but, denied funding by the Railway Company, cut all ties to LYR and opened up membership to anybody who paid the annual fee.

It was perhaps the first occasion, but by certainly no means the last, that the club had cause to argue about its ownership.

By January 1902, with debts of £2,670, the club was served with a winding-up order and only saved from extinction at the last moment by prominent local businessmen. Newton Heath fell into private hands, became Manchester United and the modern club was born.

Indeed, that meeting on 24 April 1902 was, in retrospect, the last time United supporters had any real say in running the club.

In a week when the current American owners refinanced £243 million worth of debt – about a third of United’s total – the club’s history is brought into sharp focus. Not least the antipathetic manner in which the club’s management communications with its fans.

Of course, Barça’s ownership model is not a panacea for financial providence either but there is a level of openness that is long-gone in Manchester. Barça recently borrowed money to cover a cash shortfall that has built into a substantial debt and under a new presidency is seeking to establish a period of austerity at a club that generates £50 million more in revenues per season than United.

Debt is not the only the point though. Football’s history has shown that clubs cannot self-regulate: that surely is for governing bodies, which in the FA and UEFA, have too often been slow on the uptake.

What clubs can ensure, however, is that its supporters remain central to the cause – as they were in 1878 when United formed and ten years later when the club sought to expand – and as fans are today at Barça, even in the megalith that the club has become. Indeed, in 1957 Barça’s socios effectively paid for Camp Nou’s construction.

In recent years, Barça has superseded United in both on and off the pitch. While the Catalan side triumphed in the most recent meeting at the 2009 Champions League final, the club has also proven far more successful in developing younger players. Barça provided no less than six of Spain’s World Cup winning team in addition to Argentina’s Lionel Messi, who joined Barça’s famed La Masia, home of the club’s ‘La Cantera’ academy, aged 12.

By contrast, United’s policy has evolved from developing locally born or reared players, such as in the ‘class of ’92’, to importing younger players from rivals’ academies. Wes Brown, in 1998, was the last Mancunian to graduate from United’s academy and find a regular place in the first team side.

Financially, Barça has outstripped United in recent years too, despite the 70 per cent growth in revenues under the Glazer family. The Catalan giants sell their own TV rights, which is significant, but commercial revenues are also greater than those at Old Trafford. This without taking a shirt sponsor during the club’s history.

Yet, success on the pitch, in financial terms or in youth development, always filters back to the socio; the collective goal of the club based on members’ interests.

There is much to be admired – it’s a world away from the secretive debt-laden business model foisted on United by the Glazers. The family Ferguson so vociferously supports.

In that there is no little contradiction of course.

Barcelona plans huge bid for Rooney

November 8, 2009 Tags: , Shorts 7 comments

Following Cristiano Ronaldo’s “come and join us” plea to entice Wayne Rooney to Real Madrid last week, the News of the World this morning reports that Barcelona is lining up an £85 million summer swoop to make Wayne Rooney the world’s most expensive footballer.

The Spanish club, current European Champions, believes that United’s massive £700 million debt means that the Glazer family is under increasing pressure to consider bids for all the club’s top players, according to the report.

However, Rooney is unlikely to agitate for a move, having recently stated that he would like to see out the rest of his career at United and even try to beat Ryan Giggs’ appearance record. Moreover, the player’s wife, Colleen, recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, Kai, and neither is thought to want to disrupt the family.

Time to think required after demoralising Euro loss

May 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o’s opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.

United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.

But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.

Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.

"Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward."

Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.

Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.

But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.

And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?

Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.

Champions League final: key battles

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Top matches are decided in the details. Forget tactics and coaching – it will be the one-on-one battles that will decide the Champions League final this coming Wednesday. Win most of these and United take home the cup once again.

Lionel Messi versus Patrice Evra
Messi is the planet’s most in-form player, with 37 goals from 48 games this season. His mesmeric dribbling skills and ability to fashion a goal from almost nothing has been devastating in both the Champions League and La Liga this season. However, Evra can proudly point to shutting the little Argentinian out of both legs of the 2008 Champions League semi-final. Evra, with the support of Rooney on the left, will have to be at his very best. One chance is all it takes for Messi, even if his record against English sides is unimpressive.

Samuel Eto’o versus Nemanja Vidic
The big Serb has had is best season in a United shirt and will expect to win this battle. While Eto’o’s record this season – 32 in 45 games in all competitions – is outstanding, Vidic will expect to win individual battles both in the air (there wont be many) and on the ground versus the Cameroon international. However, the Serb will need to read the game as well as ever if Barça are not to pass their way through United’s back-four.

Xavi Hernandes verus Michael Carrick
Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament Xavi has been in wonderful form this season but then so has Carrick. While many used to criticise the former Spurs man for failing to take control of games it’s hardly that can be leveled this season. Carrick’s passing has been influential and his creativity essential to United’s form this season. However, it will be Carrick’s ability to read the game and break up attacks just outside United’s area that will be essential to this duel. Win this one and Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession with be thwarted.

Thierry Henry verus John O’Shea
Many regard O’Shea as United’s weak link but the Irishman has had a solid defensive season. His attacking qualities are limited and his passing sometimes short of the class expected in a Red shirt, but O’Shea is unlikely to let United down against Henry. O’Shea will need to keep close to United’s central defenders and show Henry the line – this will test the Frenchman’s true fitness after returning from a knee injury.

Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gerard Piqué
Some say that United’s Portuguese winger has had a bad season but 25 goals in 49 games in all competitions, playing predominantly wide right, says otherwise. More to the point, Ronaldo is coming into very top form at just the right time. His pace, power and movement were far too good for Arsenal in the semi-final. Piqué, the former United defender, has matured admirably in his début Barça season. And his ability to bring the ball out of defence compared favourably with the great Franz Beckenbaur. But the final will be his biggest test yet, and without his normal central defensive parter Rafael Marquez the onus will be on the youngster.

Wayne Rooney versus Carles Puyol
If Barça deploy the club captain Puyol at right back as many pundits expect then Wayne Rooney will be the sternest test for the ageing defender. It would not be unfair to say that Puyol’s legs are going and he will need ever bit of experience to stop United’s marauding striker, who has been brilliant cutting in from the left in the last two months of the season. It may not be his favourite position but if he is not burdened too much trying to double up on Lionel Messi, Rooney should have a field day.