The Busby Way’s Champions League final preview
Importance of Scoring First (stats of past CL finals, Barca/United win ratio’s and players most likely to score first)
Before we go into the possible tactical approaches taken by both sides this weekend, an interesting statistic to note is the importance attached to the first goal in CL finals.
A good start is essential, and looking back at the last clash between these two teams, an early Ronaldo goal or Park converting that rebound could’ve had a significant effect on the ultimate outcome. Comebacks are rare in heavyweight football clashes, and there just is too much know-how at the top level to collapse once one goes ahead, especially when considering that most of the finalists are mentally battle-hardened by the time May rolls round.
So to conclude, we’ve had 18 Finals in the UCL Era (93-present) and 14 of them have been won by the side who scored first (78%). Not to mention that 4 of those comebacks have included 2 miraculous comebacks Jesus himself would’ve been proud of, 1 which was fortunately brought about by opponents going down to 10 men and one which was perhaps the most controlled comeback but still needed penalties to get the job done.
1993: Marseille 1-0 Milan,
1994: Milan 4-0 Barcelona,
1995: Ajax 1-0 Milan,
1996: Juventus 1-1 Ajax (Juve won on Pens, having scored first during the opening 90 mins),
1997: B.Dortmund 3-1 Juventus (Dortmund scored twice in the first half to open the scoring)
1998: R. Madrid 1-0 Juventus,
1999: Man. United 2-1 B. Munich (first side in CL to win the final having been behind),
2000: R. Madrid 3-0 Valencia,
2001: B. Munich 1-1 Valencia (Bayern came from behind to win the match on pens),
2002: R. Madrid 2-1 B. Leverkusen (Real opened the scoring through Raul),
2003:Milan 0-0 Juventus (Non-applicable hehe, Milan won on pens),
2004: Monaco 0-3 Porto,
2005:Milan 3-3 Liverpool (Miraculous comeback from 3 goals behind to win on pens),
2006: Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal (Barca come from two goals behind against 10 men),
2007: Milan 2-1 Liverpool (Milan scored opening two goals),
2008: Man. United 1-1 Chelsea (United scored the opening goal, and had to see the game out on Pens),
2009: Barcelona 2-0 Man. United,
2010: Inter 2-0 B. Munich,
2011: Man. United ??? Barcelona
Tactical Breakdown, Finally…
Barcas side picks itself when fully fit, so there won’t be any debate as to who will feature in the starting lineup regardless of the opposition. As always, they’ll rely on the midfield triumvirate of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta to suffocate the other side of possession, and be the conveyor belt which feeds the likes of Messi, Pedro and Villa with plenty of ball with which to hurt the opposition. The fact that Mascherano and Keita are on the bench means that they really do have all the bases covered in terms of midfield talent and style, so there is no point of going toe to toe in this area… either you match up 3 for 3 in a defensive set up, or you take a risk with 2 men, don’t look to outplay them in central areas but seek to bypass this area by having extra numbers in other threatening areas in which one can hurt this Barca outfit or even going super defensive and put in an extra defender, playing 5 at the back.
Villa who was supposed to be the true successor to Eto’o has found it difficult to excel for this Barca side despite possessing a skill set which was more suited to the Catalans than his predecessor Ibrahimovic. At times he has seemed overwhelmed by his surroundings, inhibited by the quality of his team mates despite the fact that he has featured alongside the majority of them at International Level.
One major drawback of his game has been not being as effective in central area’s as Eto’o, whereas the former drove at defenders in a very direct manner, Villa is often seen on the left flank, contributing to the build up play but doing a role which was essentially covered by Iniesta/Henry the seasons prior. As long as you show him down the line and don’t let him come in off the flank and shoot with his right, his threat can be limited, although when he does drift into central areas, one has to remain vigilant.
As a consequence of Villa’s tendency to drift wide and the need to incorporate Messi in a free role Barca are very reliant on Messi providing a presence up front, because at times, they are playing with no striker, although Pedro is very important in moving off the flanks and finishing moves also.
So it is a fluid frontline, but I don’t think its necessarily an all-conquering one if United set up well, get an early goal and seek to frustrate…Pedro & Villa can be stopped in my opinion, one just hopes Messi is marshalled exceptionally well. As for the idea of starving Xavi & Busquets of possession, by pressing high up the pitch… its not feasible in my opinion over 90 minutes, regardless of whether or not Fletcher is fully fit. It can be done in bursts, especially when you’re seeking to make an instant effect on the scoreline, but over an entire match Barcelona’s midfield will inevitably dominate and control proceedings. The idea is to control the scoreline, without really enjoying the lion’s share of possession.
Iniesta for me is a key player to stop, especially if that frontline is to be kept in check. Once he breaks past midfield lines, that gives that front trio the licence to make runs behind United’s back line, a position in which he made the Reds pay during 08/09 when he slipped a ball into Eto’o after having left Anderson for dead.
He is ‘untackleable’, on the ball I can’t think of a better dribbler, or ‘ball-carrier’ in world football and that includes Messi, he has that core strength which makes him very hard to knock off the ball, but he has a weakness… and that is his reluctance to shoot. He’s very assist-orientated, so if one can close off his options, he is prone to over-passing instead of taking the game into his own hands and seeking to score himself.
Clearly the lad is capable of momentous goals, WC 2010 final winner, the last ditch winner v Chelsea during the UCL 08/09 SF etc but he’s very reluctant to score generally, so its better just to sit off him rather than engage him and risk him driving past you, opening a whole set of passing options available to him.
Defensively, they’re underrated but gettable in equal measure. Valdes is capable of gravity-defying stops, but his distribution is weak and he is prone to howlers. Puyol and Pique’s ability to deal with pace is understated, but lightening pace like J. Hernandez, is possibly something that could prove too hot to handle, in a 1 v 1 situation if it is allied with strength on the ball. Theirry Henry gave Puyol a torrid time during the 2006 CL final, one hopes if Rooney is given more room in which to exploit his talents, he is just the type of player whose combination of pace and real strength (not like C. Ronaldo) could strike fear into this Barca back line, if indeed he can avoid the attentions of Busquets, who reads the game very well at defensive midfield.
In the full back positions, they have Alves who is a beast going forwards but prone to leaving huge areas of space in behind. The problem is United do not really possess a left winger who is capable of exploiting that space, apart from Nani and he’s not in the best of form and doesn’t really impress in that position at the moment. On the other flank it could be Adriano or Abidal, assuming it is the latter, he is physically very strong and Antonio Valencia is probably the right man for the job in terms of going toe to toe on that side of the pitch. It certainly would be a very intriguing heavyweight battle.
As for United, the strengths lie in defence and up front. Ferdinand and Vidic, at their best are the best defensive pairing in the world and I reckon the latter out of that pair, will find the pace of Villa more easier to handle than the direct nature of Eto’o. Evra is a pivotal figure in helping carry the ball from defence to attack, but his defending has become haphazard this season. Hopefully Park will have a stormer in front of him, but if they do use Pedro on that flank, he’d be well advised not to jump in and #stayonhisfeet. The same goes for Fabio, who will in my opinion be selected ahead of his brother and O’Shea, due to his extra pace and threat going forwards, Valencia will be key in protecting him.
Up front, well we’ve said all we need to know on the merits of Rooney and Hernandez, will Sir Alex go one alone up front? its more than possible but my gut instinct says Hernandez will play from the start. If he does not, it’ll be a three-man midfield.
Presuming it is two strikers, who would be the best midfield pair to a) keep it tight b) provide accurate possession, c) carry the ball under pressure and d) create chances when an opportunity presents itself. I’ll be honest, am not envious at all of the dilemma which is going through Fergie’s mind. Fletcher & Carrick can do a) quite easily and b) on a good day, on the other hand Giggs & Carrick can do b) c) d) pretty well and the big question mark is over a) whether or not this pair is enough even with the help of Park, to protect the back line from the threat of Iniesta and Messi in central areas. Quite a few people I’ve spoken to have brought up the surprise pairing of Giggs & Fletcher, but again this pairing would arguably be even worse at a) due to Fletcher’s desire to close down and no one sitting in front of the back four.
The perfect solution would perhaps be Carrick-Giggs with Fletcher closing down in front of them, taking turns with Park at closing down the opposition. But this is only possible if one man is played up front, and I doubt a Rooney partnered either side of Park and Valencia has enough unpredictability about it to be a real goal threat. Decisions, decisions.. it really is a very tough call. Now before we make predictions as to score lines/lineups, just one final feature which could yield an insight into how both teams would love to approach this game in an ideal world.