Tag Champions League Final 2011

Tag Champions League Final 2011

One week on: Reds take no pride from Euro final

June 4, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 10 comments

It has been nearly a week since Sir Alex Ferguson’s team lost comprehensively to a Barcelona side hailed as ‘the best of a generation’. Although credit is due to Pep Guardiola’s truly magnificent Barça side, which illustrates just why total football is no longer a utopian concept, it can also be said that United rarely engaged the Catalan giants in battle at Wembley.

For all the confidence shown pre-match, United failed to deliver a performance in the season’s biggest match. Perhaps part of the problem was Ferguson’s selection? After all, the starting 11 – one that many supporters called for prior to kick-off – failed to disclose Ferguson’s true intentions; whether to match Barcelona tactically and defend, or change the system and go for broke.

Evidently United did neither of those. The selection of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, flanked by Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia, suggests United wanted to take the game to Barcelona. Yet, as the statistics demonstrate, Ferguson’s side did little of this, with just one shot on target in 90 minutes.

Defensively United’s midfield did little to deter Barcelona’s attacking impetus, with Giggs struggling to break up the famous ‘carousel’ of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta, largely due to the physical constraints of the role. Meanwhile, Valencia and Park failed to offer United an outlet on the wings and were unable to turn the tide of possession in United’s favour.

Despite this Ferguson’s team sheet is certainly defendable given the set of results against Chelsea and Shalke towards the end of the season, using Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield.

The Scot had only a few options at kick-off. However, after 45 minutes United was clearly struggling to negate Barcelona threat and change was needed.

Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s strike, giving the side a lifeline on 35 minutes, may have adversely suggested convinced the Scot that no substitutions were needed when it was abundantly clear to most Giggs and Carrick would never force Barcelona into submission. If Ferguson had both Darren Fletcher and Anderson on the bench why did he forget to deploy either of them when needed?

The decision not to call on either Fletcher or Anderson may have led to Barca’s goals. Disappointingly, each of Barcelona’s three strikes derived from lackluster defending. With the aforementioned pair Barcelona would surely not have been gifted so much time in front of goal.

Lionel Messi’s goal on 54 minutes is a perfect example of this point. United’s defence failed to close the Argentinean down leaving Edwin Van der Saar exposed and Messi with a choice of firing into either corner. With no defensive cover in midfield Messi had even more time and space.

Aside from United’s defensive display, the Reds rarely managed to spring into attack with Javier Hernandez cutting an isolated figure and at times seemingly out of his depth.

Here Ferguson could also have done something different too. Certainly a player of Nani’s abilities would have added more had he been introduced earlier in the game. Perhaps even United’s leading goal scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, would have been useful from the bench? It seems futile to even attempt to understand the Bulgarian’s snub in place of a man who has scored just five goals this season.

Many pundits claim that no side would have beaten Barcelona that night. That may be true but the manner of defeat inflicted upon Ferguson’s side was embarrassing. More to the point, those who witnessed Barcelona’s encounters with Shaktar Donetsk, although high scoring, will have observed far more evenly contested affairs with the Ukrainians.

There were also alternative approaches to United’s. Real Madrid infamously tried a more defensive tactic in one of five encounters this season. Despite mixed results, Jose Mourinho’s side certainly gave Barcelona far more of a game than United did.

Ferguson’s side seldom forced Barca’s newly formed defence back. Neither did the they pressurise Iniesta and Xavi. The evidence: how many times did Barcelona’s players feel the need to writhe around on the ground in agony? Certainly, it was merely a fraction of what Barça exposed the world to in the matches against Real Madrid.

In fact the only injustice of the occasion was the presence of Sergio Busquets on the pitch. Despite being clearly and conclusively depicted as racially abusing Real Madrid’s Marcelo in the semi-final UEFA deemed it fitting to dismiss the claims. Maybe Jose Mourinho wasn’t so mad after all.

Not that United can complain. Ferguson’s side got exactly what was coming.

Morning after the night before

May 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 34 comments

Time heals but a second resounding defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final is a pain that will not subside easily; the heavy hearts hardly aided by a collective hangover.

Thousands gathered, both at Wembley and in bars, clubs and hotels across Manchester and the country. Indeed, thousands of Reds descended on London, whether they held match tickets or not. The need to be part of the experience was overwhelming. The anti-climax as realisation set in that United could not, would not, defeat the Catalan giants was just simply cataclysmic.

Yet optimism grew as kick-off approached, aided by the Reds-only atmosphere and the liberal consumption of alcohol. Certainly,the Rant crew joined a packed bar in subduing any pre-match nerves with JD Wetherspoon’s finest. Sadly, the guest ale ‘Flight of Fancy’ was a more prescient name than expected. In hindsight, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops had always lived on hope more than expectation against Barça’s collection of world stars.

The 500-strong crowd in this corner of North West London seemed, anecdotally at least, to have collectively travelled south, driven perhaps by the need to be closer to Wembley and Ferguson’s embattled team. Around 25,000 United supporters held tickets to the game; perhaps as many again travelled to the capital simply to be part of the experience.

Yet, even in the unlikeliest of settings – a cookie-cutter chain bar set in a shopping centre – this group of Reds generated an atmosphere rarely experienced at Old Trafford these days. How the Scot’s men could have done with this passionate support just one stop north on the Underground.

The singing began more than two hours ahead of kick-off, with few United legends left off an impressive roster of chants: Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest, in addition to the current crop of heroes. The men’s bathroom rocked to the sound of “Tallest Floodlights,” while an elongated version of Eric the King will surely have been heard in the nearby leafy Hampstead streets.

Ferguson’s men seemed to respond to the overwhelming support in absentia, hurtling into challenges, pressing high and forcing Barcelona into more errors during the first 15 minutes than rarely afforded during 90 minutes of most Los Cules fixtures. Although United’s bright start didn’t last the team’s ticketless fans pressed on in applying the rousing soundtrack.

While Pedro Rodríguez’ opening goal quietened the din it was only momentary; Wayne Rooney’s equaliser simply brought the house down. There is something about supporting United that encourages even the burliest of complete strangers to embrace in sheer joy.

The Wetherspoon’s screening was organised by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with 15 other venues across Manchester and London also showing the match. Around 15,000 fans gathered at the events. Reports agree that the atmosphere from the Ramada Hotel in the heart of Piccadilly, to Ministry of Sound nightclub in central London to the Point, Lancashire County Cricket Club’s fabulous new facility, was consistently up-beat until defeat was all but confirmed.

Frustration set in of course and anger supporters’ anger turned to Barcelona players’ prevalence for hitting the turf early and often. Perhaps the dawning realisation that fans’ heroes were being thoroughly outclassed nipped any potential for trouble in the bud. Indeed, supporters’ weary resignation to defeat set in as David Villa curled in Barca’s superb third.

Then talk quickly turned to the summer and much-anticipated rebuilding. While some fans called for an immediate clearout – the knee-jerk element growing louder during United’s second-half drubbing – the truth is more nuanced of course.

United’s current evolution could be accelerated by investment in top-class talent; whether the expected arrival David De Gea, Ashley Young and Raphael Varane falls into that category is certainly questionable. Sadly, overwhelming supporter demand for a midfielder to match Barça’s quality is yet to be heard by United’s top management.

Yet in winning the Premier League by nine points and reaching the Champions League final Ferguson’s side has surely over achieved this season. This was seemingly widely recognised by pub-going fans on Saturday night, who came in hope rather than certainty.

Many of this group have been driven from Old Trafford by the Glazer family’s excessive pricing. Therein lies something unique about United. The passion has not died, even though ticket prices and debt-fuelled ownership have excluded many from matches. UEFA’s disgraceful decision to offer just 25,000 tickets to each club competing in last night’s final – at £80 to £300 a piece – is yet another symptom in the race to monetisation of the ‘people’s game’.

Events such as those organised by MUST may become more commonplace. The group’s Chubb Club is already a Manchester institution, now expanded to exiled Reds in London. For now, United’s weary supporters have the summer to contemplate what might have been but look back on a thoroughly enjoyable collective event.

Champions League Final 2011: preview

May 27, 2011 Tags: , Matches 259 comments

When Sir Alex Ferguson delivered his now infamous Pacino-esque half-time eulogy deep in the bowel’s of Camp Nou’s ‘home’ dressing room during the 1999 final, he told his startled players that six feet may be the closest they ever got to ‘ol big ears, the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. As startlingly brilliant his 1999 breed could be they only ever made on final, famously winning in injury time.

By contrast Ferguson’s current generation faces their third showpiece in four years. The final of Europe’s Premier Competition no longer a rarity but, incredibly, now habitual. No more so for his 2011 generation, a team reportedly among the Scot’s very worst in 25 years at Old Trafford. How the team has made a mockery of that prediction this season.

It is this sense of over-achievement – the underdog spirit if you will – that has seemingly reduced the pressure on Ferguson’s men ahead of Saturday night’s Wembley final. Win or lose, United has never been favourite, perhaps even among the club’s own fans, to lift this year’s Champions League trophy.

Yet Ferguson, often to the media’s audible derision, has always backed his charges to come good this season. It is, according to many pundits, a team without “stardust”. Not so says the Scot, who firmly believes his players hold the ability and temperament to beat the team many regard as history’s best, on United’s ‘home’ soil.

“We have players who will all like this stage,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“In terms of Rooney’s progress in Europe, he is much more mature than he was in 2009. And others too. The experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is vital. Our experience, and our progress in Europe this season, gives us a good chance.

“Barcelona have fantastic qualities but I think our qualities will show through as well, which could make it a really good game. We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. We maybe made one or two mistakes last time, but not this time. We were disappointed we lost the game but it isn’t a matter of revenge, it is about our own personal pride.”

That preparation has included a two week period in which the Premier League was won but Ferguson did not allow the intensity of focus to drop. Indeed, the manager’s stronger-than-expected line-up against Blackpool last week belied an understanding that too many players were undercooked when United lost to Barcelona in 2009.

And while Ferguson’s line-up will surprise few, the manager has promised a fresh tactical outlook having been out-thought by Pep Guardiola’s men in Rome. Pre-eminent in Ferguson’s mind is a nagging feeling that United failed to give a true account of itself in the Italian capital, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez a glittering array of attacking talent that failed to spark

“We did most of the work before the Blackpool game [last Sunday] – and winning the league the previous week helped us that way,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“The players have to trust themselves and trust each other because I trust them. I know they’ll do the job right. This team has unity and our record in Europe this year is good. We’re used to playing in Europe, we have that experience and we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved this year in Europe.

“There could be a lot of excitement, there’ll be a lot of good football. We recognise the quality of our opponents: it’s unwise to go into a game not preparing for how your opponents play, their strengths and weaknesses.”

Manchester United v Barcelona, Champions League Final 2011, 28 MayMuch will depend on whether United can retain enough of the ball to hurt Barcelona, whose ability to dominate games has, if anything, increased in the two years since these sides last met. The Catalan giants have managed more than 70 per cent possession on average this season, meaning United will almost certainly be on the back foot most of the night.

Yet, it is easy to forget United’s positive start in Rome, where Park Ji-Sung would surely have scored in the opening seconds but for former Red Gerard Piqué’s last-ditch tackle. It is that positive outlook that Ferguson has instilled in his troops over the past fortnight.

This should reflect in the Scot’s team, whose natural instincts against big European opposition is to pack midfield. However, with Darren Fletcher unlikely to make the United 18-man squad, let alone the starting team, Ferguson’s hand is somewhat forced. Wayne Rooney is likely to partner Javier Hernández in attack, with the former Evertonian dropping deep into midfield when needed.

With Ferguson’s selection dilemma solved, the rest of the Scot’s team almost picks itself. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will form the heart of United’s midfield; Antonio Valencia will edge out Nani for the right-wing berth; Fabio da Silva is expected to play at right-back ahead of his brother Rafael.

Tactically Ferguson’s team has worked on pressing high up the pitch where United will attempt to cut of the supply to Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi by suffocating Barça’s ‘starters’ – Piqué and Sergio Busquets.

It is a tactical flexibility that owes much to Ferguson’s respect for Guardiola. While the men are no friends – Ferguson retains far more affection for José Mourinho – the elder man recognises the outstanding team Guardiola has built.

“For a young coach, he’s changed the way they play and brought a maturity to the team,” Ferguson said of the 40-year-old coach.

“From beating us in Rome to the present day, you can see that maturity. He’s changed the way they press the ball; for a young coach he’s done fantastically well and has a good presence. He played for Barcelona, which helps, and with the history of Dutch coaches there, he’s made a big step forward for Spanish coaches.”

Meanwhile, Guardiola has few selection worries save for left-back where captain Carles Puyol is expected to play out of position. Eric Abidal, now fit after undergoing surgery for a kidney tumour, is not thought to be match-ready, while Maxwell is out-of-favour. The selection may offer United a glimmer of hope, especially after Antonio Valencia’s outstanding performance against Ashley Cole in the recent victory over Chelsea.

Yet, if that sentiment is essentially pessimistic in tone then Ferguson is having none of it: “We have a great chance. We always focus on what we can do ourselves and we hope to attack – we have players who can do that.”

It’s a belief that few fans – United or otherwise – would be wise to bet against in this most unpredictable of campaigns.

Match Facts
Champions League Final. Wembley, London. 7.45pm, 28 May 2011.

Teams
Barcelona – 433 – Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa. Subs from: Bojan, Jeffrén, Keita, Milito, Maxwell, Afellay, Adriano, Abidal, Fontàs, Olazábal.

United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Kuszazck, OShea, Fletcher.

Officials
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Assistant referees: Gabor Erös, György Ring
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian, Tamás Bognar
Fourth official: Istvan Vad

Form
Barcelona – WDWDDW
United – WLWWWW

Champions League Final 2011: Rant @ London drinks

May 26, 2011 Tags: , , Shorts 25 comments

The United Rant podcast crew will be attending the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust drinks event in London during the Champions League final this weekend. There are several meet-ups planned across the capital and in Manchester – we’ll be at Weatherspoons O2 Centre, near Finchley Road tube station in London, for the duration.

Fans can buy tickets for any of the events from MUST – there are venues across Manchester and London. We’ll be at venue #11 and all profits from ticket sales go to the trust. Tickets guarantee entry for pre-match drinks for those going to the game at Wembley (with easy access via the Metropolitan Line), plus a screening of the match and after-party for those who are not.

Join us where we’ll be recording supporters’ views before, during and after the match for the Rant Cast!

If you can’t get to Finchley Road these other Manchester and London events are taking place, all bookable via the MUST website (or here for the Fabric nightclub event).

Manchester

  • Ramada Piccadilly
  • Palace Hotel
  • Copper Face Jacks
  • The Point – OT, Lancs Cricket Ground
  • The Crown
  • The Quay House, Salford Quays
  • Mint Lounge, Manchester

London

  • Wetherspoons, O2 Centre, Finchley Road
  • North Star, Finchley Road
  • Walkabout, Finchley Road
  • Fabric Nightclub, Farringdon
  • Trinity Bar, Harrow
  • Sattavis Patidar Centre  (pre and post match party, NOT showing game)

Champions League Final 2011: former Red Piqué, now central to Barça’s cause

May 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments

When Gerard Piqué told Sir Alex Ferguson that he was leaving Old Trafford in summer 2008 the Scot’s anger almost prevented the £5 million transfer to Barcelona. Piqué, thought Ferguson, had gone behind his Manchester United manager’s back to secure a move ‘home’. The incident very nearly ended the deal. Ferguson relented and three years on Piqué is no longer a United reserve but essential to both new club and his country.

In many senses its a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old, who spent four years in Manchester and appeared 25 times for the club, but failed to make a breakthrough into Ferguson’s first team. Having won at European and World level in the past three seasons, Piqué has achieved far more than anybody could have predicted for the unassuming Barcelona-born player.

Indeed, four largely stagnant years away from home could have shaped a career in a very different way. Yet, the former-Barça youth team player, who graduated from the same La Masia academy as Lionel Messi, is far from bitter about his experience under Ferguson’s tutelage.

“It was a difficult time and there were hard moments when you don’t understand why you’re not playing,” Piqué told UEFA.com.

“But they had two great central defenders, Rio and Vidić, so it was tough for me to get a chance. It was still a great experience to play there with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, van Nistelrooy. I went there when I was 17 and came back when I was 21. The Gerard who went was very different to the one who came back.

“With Sir Alex we talked openly, and I never had a problem. Although I didn’t play a lot, I had a good relationship with him. Then I got the offer from Barcelona and I went up to him and told him ‘It is a pleasure to play here, but I would like to leave’, that I wanted to go back home. He tried to convince me otherwise, but he understood.”

When the player returned to Catalonia, far from being farmed out to the ‘B’ side as many expected,  Piqué was thrust into the centre of Barça’s defence alongside the incomparable Carles Puyol. It was a tough baptism of course; from playing in front of 500 at Moss Lane, Altrincham for United’s reserves to the intimidating Camp Nou atmosphere on début against Wisla Krakow.

Yet, in the intervening years Piqué has not only established himself in Pep Guardiola’s side but become the mainstay of the Catalan’s defence. The former-Red will marshal Barça’s back-four against United, with Puyol expected to play at left-back in Eric Abidal’s absence.

It is a role that Piqué will no doubt relish having already been a key man in Barça’s 2-0 victory in Rome two years ago. After all, the goal saving tackle on Park Ji-Sung with barely a minute gone almost certainly changed the game in the Catalans’ favour.

Not that his former team-mates ever had any doubt about the player’s ability; only the opportunity Piqué may have been afforded in a crowded United squad.

“Everyone knew Piqué had talent,” adds Rio Ferdinand.

“But English football is different. If you asked him if he could have been where he is now if he had been playing for Manchester United, he would probably have said ‘I don’t know’. When you get a chance, you have to take it. He has gone to Spain, is winning trophies with Barcelona and is doing fantastically well, so you have to give him credit for that.”

Piqué’s essential contribution to Barça is not only defensive though. In the Catalan giant’s tiki-taka style Piqué is the man charged with starting the next wave of Barça attack. It’s a role that will bring the player into direct conflict with Wayne Rooney if the United forward begins the game in the deep-lying ‘number 10′ role.

Piqué, who has real turn of speed despite the casual style, will also be a key man in combating Javier Hernández’ explosive pace. This is true whether Piqué lines up alongside 33-year-old Puyol or former Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano.

It is, however, Rooney who draws Piqué’s focus. Understandable perhaps, given the friendship the pair struck up in Manchester. Indeed, Rooney sent the defender a message of congratulations after Barcelona knocked Real Madrid out of the competition at the semi-final stage.

“He is one of the best strikers in the game and has scored a lot of goals,” Piqué said of his former teammate.

“I will have to concentrate hard to not to give him space. I have a good friendship with him but we both want to win this game and we will be fighting for our own interests. Rooney congratulated me on Twitter the day after we eliminated Madrid. It was always difficult playing against him in training as it is with Messi now.”

It is a battle that may shape a final. The boy who at 17 would call his mother to say “everything was fine” when in the reality he was holding back the tears has come a long way. It is the man now central to Barça’s cause who may break United’s hearts.

Champions League Final 2011: Fergie’s selection dilemma

May 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 41 comments

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

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.