You would have to be a brave man and pundit to bet against the almighty Barcelona, but Manchester United might just be the team to beat them.
As the final whistle sounded at Old Trafford, United had beaten Schalke by four goals to one, 6-1 on aggregate. Winning by a five goal margin in a Champions League semi final had not been seen since the competition’s inception. The watching Guardiola must have been silently frustrated to say the least; witnessing in essence a United second string side trounce Schalke, not what he expected upon hearing the line up. But he would have watched enough video-tapes of United’s games this season to know that Saturday could be the most intriguing and career-defining game of his life.
The former Barcelona skipper firmly believes that the United class of 2011 is superior to the one the Catalans faced in 2009, a team that included the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. Whether Guardiola was playing mind games, he has been locked in a head to head battle with Jose Mourinho all season, or if he actually meant it is as good as anyone’s guess.
A battle of wits and experience
For all that the Catalan has achieved over the last two years, Ferguson remains a master of the game. Guardiola can be likened to that of a learning disciple who has become successful in learning his master’s practices in a short time. The Scotsman however, has seen his charges come and go. Legends, seemingly irreplaceable players like Schmeichel, Hughes, and Keane have left Ferguson, but there is still a consistent success to be found: three finals in the past four seasons tells it’s own story of the vast experience the manager has accumulated at this level. His team has garnered the same from many years competing in Europe.
Van Der Sar, for instance, has been to four European finals. The Dutch veteran was victorious on two occasions with Ajax back in 94’ and United three years ago in Moscow. He will partake in his fifth final this weekend, and his final game for Manchester United after a glorious sending off at Old Trafford last Sunday. Only until Guardiola finds a way to build a championship-winning team without a Messi or Xavi, players who will leave the club one day and players whom he inherited, will he be regarded in the same breadth as the United legend.
The Barcelona manager has yet to experience a true humbling; he has not experienced much failure in his career so far, with the possible exception of last year’s narrow loss against Inter and losing the Copa Del Rey to Madrid on one occasion. Even then, it was down more to Inter and Mourinho’s credit than Barcelona’s failings that saw the Spanish side miss out on the final, while Madrid’s cup win this season was seen as little more than mere consolation. The Camp Nou outfit are on the verge of completing a double, the same with United who lost their right to be in the FA Cup final ironically to another arch-rival in Man City. To say that a lot will be at stake when the two titans of football meet is a glorious understatement.
There was also a boy schooled in the academy of La Masia, who eventually grew into one of the best centre-halves in the world after leaving and returning back to his homeland. Gerard Pique’s time in England had been a transitional period for him to mature into the important player he has become for the Blaugrana today, and he offered some insight into the contrasting styles of communication both managers employ to rifle their troops.
“They both have the ability to motivate sides, although Guardiola speaks more calmly while Ferguson will try to harangue his troops.”
It has always been premature to determine if a manager can be credited as a sole factor for turning games around. Could Ferguson or Guardiola attempt to win the trophy on their own via superior tactics or through the fascinating art of motivating their players for the final 90 minutes of their season? It is a tribute to both sides that there are simply too many permutations to consider, that both managers are no longer as decisive a factor as they might have been otherwise. They have cancelled each other out.
How will United line-up?
No one can deny that the current United team lack the imagination and excitement of Ferguson’s more swashbuckling, glamorous teams of past. That has set a dangerous precedent as many have assumed United’s play to automatically translate to mediocrity on the field.
Manchester United have always been a mix of pragmatism and flair. And if the flair quotient has decreased this year, then it is only right that the former be increased to achieve the same results. That has been exactly the case. United have not been brilliant this season, but they have grinded results as usual and produced when it mattered most. One need only look at what the team has achieved this season: a record 19th domestic title in the bag and a Champions League final outing at Wembley.
Barcelona though, are justified favourites for the European Cup. It presents an interesting dynamic for United this season; they have never been seen as underdogs in European competition this season (Against Chelsea both were partial favourites to go through).
All talk has inevitably zoomed in to Barcelona and their stars, notably Lionel Messi. Manchester United may need more than one player to counter the threat of the Argentine; they need two. Darren Fletcher and Anderson present a considerable risk, especially taking into account Anderson’s erratic form at times with Fletcher still clocking up match fitness. They however, could perform a dual-marking role Messi, and forming a solid defensive unit spearheaded by Barclay’s player of the year Nemanja Vidic, there is every possibility this combination can make meat out of Xavi and Iniesta if they play to the levels everyone knows they can. Anderson has previously shown he has the ability on occasion to dominate world-class midfielders like Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas in the Premier League, and if deployed properly he could be the destroyer United so desperately seek and need.