If you listen to a lot of pundits they are all quoting one cliche when talking about this Champions League Final match up, “‘This game would be won and loss in the midfield”. This statement though, may well be true. Barcelona are pass-masters in the middle of the park and it is wise for any opposition coming up against them to, at least, match them in numbers in this area. Real Madrid found this out the hard way when Pepe was sent off in the semi-final first leg. Xabi Alonso, who was man marking Lionel Messi between the lines, while Pepe and Diarra focused on Xavi and Iniesta, was instructed to form a flat two in the centre of midfield along with Diarra and Madrid were outnumbered 3v2 in that area and Barcelona dominated from then on. Sir Alex Ferguson would surely resort to his European strategy of flooding the midfield and ensure that each of his midfielders has a definite marking assignment.
Similarly to Mourinho, he would assign his deep-lying playmaker to mark Messi. Unlike Mourinho he would use players who are more technically inclined in the shape of Giggs and Park Ji-Sung to come up against the Spanish midfield maestros. At the Bernabeau, the home team encountered problems in the transitional phase, from defense to attack, as the players who were pressed Barca’s midfield were not technically inclined to make effective use of the ball when they won it or made forward runs to support the attack. Ferguson though, should not have this problem if he goes with aforementioned two. On the night Manchester United’s midfield may line up like this:
Sitting in front of the back four would be Michael Carrick. He is the fulcrum of the United’s attack and the cool head who just keeps the ball moving. His first touch is immaculate, he passes with both feet and is usually well positioned to break up attacks. Against Barcelona his composure and passing ability would be desperately needed, especially in the first 60 minutes. During this period the Catalans are known to press intensely all over the pitch and his team-mates would look towards him to help them to retain possesion or even spread the ball to the wide areas to for the wingers to run on too. Carrick’s reliance on his defensive positioning rather than tackling (similar to Rio Ferdinand) to win back possession is a major plus for United. This is so because with interceptions he wins not only the ball but possession for his team and this is much better than the uncertainty that goes with tackling. On the subject of interception, Michael Cox wrote in an article, ‘”when the ball is intercepted) You’re immediately in possession, whereas after a tackle, the ball can run away to an opponent. And there’s more chance of launching a quick counter-attack, and transforming defence into attack swiftly.”
A criticism of Carrick is that he is not as effective when not given time on the ball and coming up against Barcelona he is definitely going to be pressed. Unlike his opposing counterpart, Xavi he does not have the evasive skills to fend off and get around players closing him down quickly.
The 37 year old, who continues to defy logic best illustrates Sir Alex Ferguson’s abilty to produce adaptable footballers. Giggs has evolved from a flying winger to an attacking midfielder and now he has settled nicely in his new role as a centre midfielder. What he brings to the United midfield is experience, creativity and drive. A combination which cannot be found in any other United midfielder. This combination also compliments Michael Carrick very well who will sit in front of the back four while Giggs ventures forward. As a converted winger he does like to drift to the left flank where he combines with the wide players to provide crosses into the area. He leads United in the Champions League with 2 key passes and 4 assists per game and his creativity and excellent deliveries both in open play and on set pieces may prove vital to United getting on the scoresheet.
For the final, Giggs’ defensive abilities would be tested as he is most likely to come up directly against Andres Iniesta. Though he would be required to get forward as much as possible, as would Iniesta, he must also be cautious and selective when making his forward runs and not be caught out of position.
Park Ji Sung
The energetic ‘Three Lungs Park’ is definitely the first name Sir Alex Ferguson would put on the teamsheet on Saturday night. His tactical discipline plus his knack for doing well and scoring in big games would guarantee him a starting position for this one. Park would most likely be deployed in what I like to call the ‘defensive trequartista’ role like he was in the round of 16 encounters last year vs. AC Milan. On that occassion his task was to get in the face, at all times, of deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo and stop AC Milan from building attacks through him. I expect the same strategy to be used against Barcelona’s playmaker Xavi Hernandez in an attempt to nullify his major influence on Bacrelona’s play in the attacking phase. Park would also be called upon to double up on Messi with Michael Carrick in an attempt to dispossess the Argentinian when he is in on the ball.
Going forward the Korean runs well off the ball and plays nice short passes but he lacks the creativity needed to play behind the main striker. This should not be a problem in the early stages of the game especially with the score tied at 0-0 but expect him to be substituted if United are chasing the game late on.
In the middle of the park Manchester United will be up against the three players who were shortlisted for the 2010 FIFA Ballon D’or. It doesn’t look like Sir Alex Ferguson would not have the services of Darren Fletcher, who I think he would have loved to go with from the start, for the full 90. His defensive intensity in the midfield may have seen him get the nod ahead of Ryan Giggs. With that being said, these three (who I believe would start) would have to be disciplined executing their defensive duties and also help the team transition from defense to attack very quickly. Most interesting match up to watch would be Giggs vs Iniesta as the both are mostly known for their attacking qualities. Carrick vs Messi though is definitely going to be the most crucial match up as the Barcelona’s number 10’s role as a ‘false 9’ main objective is usually to drag a central defender out of position creating space for the wide forward to make diagonal runs onto through ball from the midfield. Thus Carrick’s responsibility would be to sit between the lines and pick up Messi when he drops to receive passes. This trio would also have to be very astute with the ball when in possession. They would have to avoid getting caught in possession and help United create chances in the little time they may be on the ball.