As you will all know Barça are already in London in preparation for Saturday’s Champions League Final with Manchester United at Wembley. With another volcanic dustcloud threatening flights in Europe the decision to travel early was taken to make sure there was no repeat of the bus journey to Milan last April which affected us so badly. This change to our plans will not help as it means our players will now be stuck in a hotel until Saturday. However, it may not be a bad thing and hopefully they will be able to focus 100% on the game.
The Ryan Giggs affair will not have helped Sir Alex Ferguson in his preparation. Giggs may be one hell of a player but he seems to have got in a real mess here in a hopeless attempt not to be named. It remains to be seen how much this will affect him as a player, but he is married with two daughters, and the fact that he tried so hard to prevent the story coming out suggests that he will be somewhat upset by the whole thing. At 37 Giggs is still a regular starter in midfield and he has been instrumental in winning the Premiership this season. Much has been made about the fact that Ferguson has won 12 league titles in England; Ferguson become United’s manager in 1986, yet he only won his first Premiership in the 1992/93 season when Giggs had become a regular.
United’s best starting line-up in recent weeks has looked like this: Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Hernandez. This is probably how United will play as it seems that Darren Fletcher is more likely to start on the bench. Fletcher, who missed the 2009 Final in Rome through suspension, suffered a strange stomach virus back in March and has been struggling to regain match fitness. He played 20 minutes in United’s semi-final win over Schalke 04, and last Saturday he completed 90 minutes in the 4-2 win over Blackpool, so he could be in line for selection. Fletcher would seem like United’s best choice as an anti-Messi option, but I have a feeling that Ferguson will not want to change things now. United will no doubt hope to exploit the pace of Wayne Rooney and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, and for this they will try and hit us on the break. Rooney may also be given the task of hassling Sergio Busquets (watch for sparks here!) when Barça have possession, and we will have to be very careful not to give the ball away near our goal.
There has been a fair bit of debate about the strength of this season’s United squad compared to other years. The talent is of course abundant but defensively they do not look as solid, as the 37 league goals conceded this season suggests (compared to only 24 in the 2008/09 season). They won the title with 80 points (compared to 90 in 2008/09) and in the last three months they have lost important league games at Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal while losing out to Man City in the Wembley FA Cup semi-final. This is all reflected in the fact that this time round Barça are clear favourites whereas two years ago the two sides were evenly fancied. However, United have tremendous character and the fact that the game is in England will favour them. The core of their team has been together for years and most of them played In Rome so they will be itching for revenge. I am sure they will come out very strongly at the start and if we allow United the first goal we are going to find it extremely difficult to get back in the game.
The only doubt for Pep Guardiola it would seem, is whether to start with Eric Abidal or Adriano at left back. While I’m sure all our hearts want it to be Abidal, it has to be said that since coming back he hasn’t quite reached the levels shown before his operation. However, I trust in Pep to decide on who is the best man for the moment and I’m sure he will not let sentiment affect his choice. As for tactics I don’t know if Pep has any surprises in store, but I’m sure the general aim as usual will be to control possession and dominate midfield and I imagine that as in Rome we will see Messi dropping back to combine with Iniesta and Xavi, thus leaving Ferdinand and Vidic with nobody to mark.
All in all there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic, however, the main threat to us could be our own complacency. Before the game two years ago I was surprised by the cockiness of some United fans, this time round they have learnt to respect us, although sadly there is a minority who have picked up on Mourinho’s accusations against us as a way of putting us down. It is important that we respect United, if we believe that we only have to turn up to win then we could be in for a surprise. Seventeen years ago we felt Johan Cruyff’s dream team were unbeatable but we were annihilated in Athens by AC Milan Fortunately we know that one of our main strengths under Guardiola is our mentality, I’m sure the team will perform well. We may have come out on top of our recent series of clasicos with Real Madrid but the football was not great to watch for neutrals. There’s no way Ferguson will play it as defensively as Mourinho so hopefully we will see a fantastic open game and we can once more show the world that nobody plays the beautiful game quite as beautifully as Football Club Barcelona.
Possible starting XIs:
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa.
Man United: Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney, Chicharito.
My prediction: Barça 3 United 1