Tag Champions League Final

Tag Champions League Final

The Fletcher Euro question

May 11, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 34 comments

When Manchester United lost to Barcelona in the Champions League final two years ago defeat broke thousands of hearts. After all, not only was Sir Alex Ferguson’s side trying to defend Europe’s premier trophy but began the game as favourites. Outclassed by a team now widely regarded as one of the finest in the game’s history, United supporters could only ponder what might have been. Indeed, one of the principal questions raised in the post-match analysis was whether United might have done better if Scot Darren Fletcher had not missed the game.

It was hard on the Scot, sent off during United’s semi-final second leg with Arsenal when the game and tie was already won. Moreover, in committing a ‘professional foul’ Scotland captain Fletcher got the merest toe on the ball, resulting in an unjustified red card, according to many pundits.

Once again 26-year-old Fletcher is in danger of missing a European final having been laid-low with a mysterious virus over the past two months. The illness, which has sidelined Fletcher for the best part of United’s run-in, left the player with considerable weight loss.

Yet, having played some reserve football and a brief appearance in the comfortable win over Schalke last week, Fletcher may take part in this year’s final. He is likely to make another appearance against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday and then – results permitting – will start against Blackpool on the final day of the domestic season.

“Darren has put the weight back on and is back in training, but he has a bit to do yet,” Ferguson confirmed.

“But, as far as the final is concerned, there is almost three weeks to achieve that. If he does reach the target, it will be a big boost to us as we all know he is big-game player. The 20 minutes he got against Schalke last week was certainly a step forward. His training, in terms of sharpness for such an important game, will be stepped up now.

“We’ve also got Blackburn Rovers away, Blackpoool at home, and even Gary Neville’s testimonial game so there’s opportunity for game time that will help him reach his target.”

But the question of Fletcher’s participation in European competition is certainly more nuanced than the midfielder’s fitness. Ferguson has a tactical conundrum to answer, especially with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs – aided by Wayne Rooney – in such good form during the past six week’s. Indeed, with time on the ball coming at a premium against Barcelona, United’s manager may not benefit from losing the Giggs-Carrick possession axis.

The alternative for Ferguson is to alter the tactical plan that worked so well against Chelsea in recent weeks, with Fletcher augmenting midfield and Rooney ploughing a lone furrow up-front. The change would add more steel to United’s midfield but disrupt Rooney’s renaissance at ‘number 10′ and force in-form Javier Hernández back to the bench. It might be a losing hand too, with United then betting on shutting out the Catalans’ extraordinary attacking threat while catching the opposition on the break.

However, defender Rio Ferdinand has backed the Scot’s return, claiming that Fletcher’s energy will add much to the United cause. It’s a fair point, with Fletcher arguably the only dynamic central midfielder in the United squad capable of effectively playing a more destructive role. Certainly, the horrors of Anderson’s performance against the Spaniards in 2009 will not easily be forgotten.

“Darren can run ridiculous amounts during games,” said Ferdinand.

“Park Ji-sung is the only person who could rival him running-wise. That says a lot. He covers a lot of ground, gets at people and can score important goals. He gets the crowd going and is an integral member of the squad. It will be great to have him back.”

Alternatively, Ferguson may opt to meet fire with fire by sending out an attacking United side to take on the newly re-crowned Spanish champions, consigning the fit Scot, at best, to the bench. The gambler’s instinct may just tip Ferguson to hold Fletcher back and retain a formula that has proven successful against domestic and European opponents recently.

In the meantime United should wrap up the Premier League with ease against a dispirited Blackburn side, which should be safe from relegation but has shown no real form under manager Steve Keen. The game may afford Fletcher 45 minutes this weekend, the full 90 against Blackpool at home and Neville’s testimonial four days before the Wembley final.

On Ferdinand’s part, the former England has promised a better performance from United in the Champions League final than last time out. It couldn’t get much worse.

“I have never watched 2009 again,” the Scot told ManUtd.com.

“But matches like that are hard to forget as it is clear in your head. If you want to sit and think about games like that they come up quite easily. It is like bringing something up on the internet. I have not watched it but I have re-run it in my head a few times. We never played. We never got on the ball. We weren’t Manchester United that day. This time we will give a better account of ourselves.

“On the way back we were sitting there thinking if only we had gone out and played and been the real Manchester United, it would have been different. They always say you don’t want to come off the pitch with any regrets. There were regrets that night.”

For Fletcher, fitness ought not to be a regret two years down the line.

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 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.

Champions League final 2009: preview

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

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.

Barça’s injury worries mount to leave United favourites

May 11, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

United will head into the May 27 Champions League final clash agasint Barcelona as favourites after the Catalan club suffered yet more injuries over the weekend. Already facing the match without defensive quartet Éric Abidal and Dani Alves (suspended) together with Gabriel Milito and Rafael Márquez (injured), Barcelona now also face a potential crisis in midfield and attack. Influential forward Thierry Henry is almost certain to miss the match with knee ligament strain, while in-form attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta suffered a recurrence of an old thigh strain that may keep him out for the rest of the season. It’s a crisis that will mean Barcelona calling on the depths of their squad and tinkering with a tactical system that has served them so well this season.

The crisis will mean changes in attack, midfield and defence for Los Cules, many of which failed to work against Chelsea in the semi-final. With Alves suspended, club-captain Carles Puyol will be forced to play emergency right-back and midfielder Yaya Touré will again parter former United man Gerard Piqué at centre back. It was a position where the Ivory Coast player was horribly exposed against Guus Hiddink’s men last week. But Barca boss Josep Guardiola has little choice other than the callow Uruguayan  Martín Cáceres, who he appears to have little trust in, let alone for a match of this magnitude.

In midfield Samuel Keita will again play, alongside the brilliant Xavi and the youthful Spanish international Sergio Busquets. Despite the absence of Darren Fletcher through suspension, United will hope that a midfield three led by Michael Carrick and flanked by Anderson and (probably) the evergreen Ryan Giggs to dominate the centre of the park, much as they did against Arsenal in the semi-final.

Up front Barcelona, minus Henry, would expect to field Iniesta on the left side of an attacking three. Reports over the weekend suggested that Iniesta’s thigh injury was serious enough to rule him our for the remainder of the season, although the player has played down that suggestion today. Either way, a thigh tear will ensure that the player is less than 100% fit for the final.

Guardiola’s other options are to bring in the exuberant but erratic teenager Bojan Krkić. However, Bojan’s place in the team would force Samuel Eto’o to play a slightly wider role, a position he is far less effective in. Alternatively, Barça could turn to Premiership stalwarts Eiður Guðjohnsen and Aliaksandr Hleb.

Either way, the injury tide has turned United’s way.