Saturday, May 28th, 2011, Wembley: the venue for a truly epic game that could define the season for the two sides involved. Set at the same venue where both Manchester United and Barcelona won their first European Cups, albeit, both played out at the previous incarnation of Wembley. This is a one-off game, a must win game at any cost, a tantalising prospect for the neutral.
In the blue and red corner, is Barcelona, due to play in their traditional home kit. Superlatively touted in the media circle as the 'best team ever,' and as much as it is dangerous to apply labels like this prematurely, they are sure making a strong case for it; housing some of the most naturally gifted footballers of their generation in the same squad.
In the all white corner, we have Manchester United, who, perhaps significantly, are set to play in their away strip on the night, a kit they have worn twice this season; a 2-1 loss away to Wolves and a 3-1 loss to their rivals Liverpool at Anfield. United, it must be said, go into this game as the underdogs, a moniker that they are certainly not used to, but which may just provide the extra focus required to be able to outwit and outplay their massively talented opponents.
A lot of speculation has surmounted around United's prospective formation and who will be fielded in the first team. The safe bet seems to be with the exact formation that Sir Alex Ferguson used in the recent big games against Chelsea, with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs making up the centre of midfield, Valencia and Park out wide, a forward line of Rooney then Hernandez. The major selection dilemmas for Ferguson will stem from the ability of Paul Scholes, the form of Anderson in recent weeks, and the return to fitness of Darren Fletcher.
There are many who deem United's failure to beat Barcelona in the 2009 final as a result of the ban that Fletcher was serving, citing his defensive abilities as what was sorely missed against the Barcelona midfield merry-go-round. This time, however, Fletcher has been out of action for a long time with a virus, and would surely be a risk against such an imperious force.
For Barcelona; formations, tactics and personnel becomes a whole lot easier to predict. Their tried and tested fluid 4-3-3 layout will surely be maintained, Messi will play in his dynamic number 9 position, causing mayhem for United's defence and midfield at the same time. Importantly, having been cleared of accusations of racism, Sergio Busquets will pick up his anchor role in the Catalan side. Busquets is an extremely important member of the Barcelona team, a player that probably touches the ball the most of any outfield player for Barcelona with his one-touch passes; a role that seem so simple yet its importance is vast in terms of retaining possession and beginning attacks, much in the same mold as Carrick plays for this current United side.
A great deal of media attention has been given to the fact that, because this final is being played in England, United should be regarded as the home team, and they hold some form of advantage because of this. To put this theory to bed I shall quickly recite the stats from all the competitive games that United have played at the 'new' Wembley: 5 games played, 2 goals scored, 1 game won. Hardly home form, I'm sure you'll agree.
There are so many supremely talented gods of soccer on show in this game that picking just one as the key is an exceptionally hard exercise. But a choice is what I have made, and I'm sure this man can be the key to his side's dreams of lifting the coveted trophy at the end of the night. That man is Wayne Rooney. In this game, and in the formation that I anticipate Manchester United to play, Rooney will be playing mainly as a central midfielder, whose job it is to ensure the midfield battle is not dominated by the triumvirate of Iniesta-Xavi-Busquets. His role will also be to provide the link between the midfield and Hernandez, as the nominal striker. This is a role that Rooney has re-reinvented himself in for the latter stages of this season, playing exceptionally in this guise. If Rooney can find the delicate balance, and execute the game plan to the best of his undoubted ability, then I believe United will have more than a chance to overcome the favourites for the tie.
Whatever does transpire, I'm pretty confident that the game will be a spectacle to behold. The flair and confidence of Barcelona against the grit and determination of United. Will it be a chess game of controlled possession, or an exhibition of lightning-quick counter-attacks? Will Hernandez write his name further into United folklore, or will Messi continue on with his remarkable journey as the greatest player of all time?
Comment below and let me know what you think.