The Champions League Final.
Barcelona, La Liga champions, will take on, EPL champions, Manchester United at Wembley Stadium in in a match for the ages. London
Two of club football's greatest teams will go head to head in a repeat of the Champions League Final in 2009 where La Blaugrana dominated the Red Devils in a very one sided affair. Armed with a better team ethic and with revenge in mind, Sir Alex Ferguson will lead his side out against Pep Guardiola and a team that many feel is the greatest club side of all time.
4-3-3 vs. 4-4-2 for the Hearts and Minds of World Football.
There are no two ways about. Old Trafford and the
are two of the greatest houses of football worship on the planet. Their very names evoke visions of football being played the right way. Disciplined defending, intelligent movement, sabre like attacks, and above all - great players and great managers. Camp Nou
And they have become the team you need to beat if you want to have any say in the Champions League.
Their dominance though, can be traced back to a little farm house renovation in 1979.
Inspired by the Dutch school of football and Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff in particular, the then club president, Josep Nunez, decided to change the club residence to a youth academy with a view to changing the clubs playing style to the Total Football style of Ajax and La Masia as we know it today was born.
4-3-3 as a system can be quite complicated for the average footballer to play and it requires great discipline and awareness to make it look as seamless as La Blaugrana do. In essence, the basic idea is that every player can do every job and that as they move out of position, a team mate moves in to cover and offer support.
Movement wise, many formations were built upon "triangles" and always having an option left and right. This can be difficult enough to achieve but Total Football goes one step further and asks for the supporting players for the minimum of three choices, thus creating a "diamond" of options.
This added player/option always offers depth and penetration and in a team where everyone's technical, physical, and tactical skills are at the top of their game it makes them extremely hard to close down as possession is retained due to the superior movement of its players.
It therefore comes as little wonder to find that Barcelona have set a Champions League record and have enjoyed an average of 62 percent possession across their 12 matches thus far.
It must be pointed out though, that the role of the goalkeeper is to instigate every move, and while the two central defenders pull wide to offer him width, the two full backs push on past their markers into midfield while a midfielder drops to the centre of the box. This quick change essentially makes the 4-3-3 become something of a 3-4-3 in a mere matter of seconds. It is further complicated by the central striker dropping deep into midfield.
This gives defending centre halves a huge headache, as the full backs are occupied by the wide forwards and they then have to make the decision to either follow their counterpart or pass him onto a midfielder.
With such fluid motion of movement,
becomes extremely hard to mark or pick up. Barcelona
Manchester United is no slouches either though.
The Red Devils have traditionally used a 4-4-2 system over the years and it is only recently that Sir Alex Ferguson has moved towards a 4-2-3-1 which has been en vogue since Jose Mourinho appeared in the game.
However, more recently,
Ferguson has moved back to a tried and trusted 4-4-2 and despite tactical criticism at the beginning his team have proved more than a match for anyone they have encountered either domestically or in Europe this season.
4-4-2 is a formation that is seen by many a being something of a "simple" system but it offers far more flexibility than perhaps any other formation. It is this flexibility that Sir Alex Ferguson has exploited so well and with the right weapons in the right positions 4-4-2 can become as defensive as a Roman Tortoise or as attack minded as
in 1970. Brazil
While this is happening, the two full backs will push on and tighten the space for the opponent’s midfield as the 4-4-2 becomes something of a 2-4-3-1 with options everywhere but primarily out wide.
It is in the backdrop of last years dismal Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan and the abysmal World Cup Final between Spain and Holland where three of the four teams involved used a defensive 4-3-2-1 system that we can be thankful that two attack minded managers who instruct their teams to play the right way have got to the final using formations, systems, and philosophies that are based on attack.
Whichever, system wins the Champions League Final will be the one that is adopted up and down pitches across the world. Where Sunday League superstars and the schoolboy superstars of tomorrow will represent the hearts and minds that
and Man United are battling to conquer. Barcelona
They strolled through an easy group featuring FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan, and Panathinikos without ever really having to get out of second gear.
After winning the group in the easiest of fashion they were drawn against Arsenal in the Last 16, but despite losing 2-1 at the Emirates, they moved on to the Quarter Finals without ever really having to break sweat.
The Arsenal win came courtesy of a team who had dominated the game to such an extent that they substituted their best players and they literally turned off for the final 20 minutes. That will happen in the final.
From there they played Shaktar Donetsk and unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the tie was all over after just 53 minutes as Barca raced into a 3-0 lead in a game they went on to win 5-1.
stood waiting in the Semi Finals were arguably the first real opposition that La Blaugrana had to face in the competition. A bad tempered affair at the Bernabeu was settled by none other than Lionel Messi and the tie was as good as over before a ball was even kicked in the second leg. Madrid
Key Player: Xavi
The little Catalan maestro is the best practitioner of central midfield play in decades and is certain to go down in history as one of the greats of the game. In a team that boasts such talent as Andres Iniesta, David Villa, and Lionel Messi; it is Xavi who provides the pivot upon which the entire
axis rotates. Barcelona
His movement to support his team mates and his ability to instigate attacks with one deft touch mark him out as the best passer of ball in the world and his eye for a killer pass goes unmatched in the game.
Xavi provides the heartbeat of the team and pops up in every area of the pitch and armed with his phenomenal technique and range of passing he has the ability to unlock any team from anywhere.
The Key to Beating
Be it FC Copenhagen, Real Madrid, or Manchester United - Pep Guardiola's team will play the same way.
With that in mind, Barca will be keen to exploit any weaknesses that United may show.
The Red Devils midfield, no matter who Sir Alex Ferguson picks is very slow and static. So Barca will make sure to zip the ball around as they chase shadows. Lionel Messi will drop deep and ask questions of Ferdinand, Vidic, and Michael Carrick and who should pick the little wizard up.
Carrick will most probably already have enough to deal with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets so one of the central defenders may have to follow the Argentinean and disrupt the shape of the team. If and when that happens, gaps will open up between the wide defence and then United will be vulnerable to angled through balls for Pedro or Villa.
If the central pairing decides to let Messi go, then he will provide the option to receive the ball and you might end up seeing a replica of his wonder goal against Real Madrid.
It will also be important for
's two full backs to push up and occupy United's wide players. This has to be done in the opponents half to force United into using long out balls to the wings. Barcelona
Where a deep lying three man defence will be able to sweep wide and have the time to see the danger coming. Barca's defence should be under strict instruction to stay that little bit deeper so as to negate a through ball for Hernandez or Rooney.
Barcelona Manager: Pep Guardiola.
"Manchester United is extraordinarily strong, very similar to Real Madrid. They are a hard-working side and it's very hard to hurt them."
"We have to be very careful because they can score against you on the break. We have to know how to interpret the final, depending on how they play, and play the game on our terms."
The Red Devils are unbeaten in the Champions League, only conceded four goals in the entire competition and none away from home and sailed into the Champions League Final without even having to break sweat.
Group C also contained
, Bursapor, and Rangers with United topping the group with relative ease. Valencia
The Last-16 draw against Marseille looked tricky on paper but once again Sir Alex Ferguson's side showed their experience and Champions League nous to keep the French champions at arms length across the two games.
Next up was a Battle of Britain decider against the team United beat in the Final in 2008, Chelsea.
Again, this looked like a game that could really go any way, but once again, United stepped up to the plate and destroyed the Blues at Stamford Bridge with their best performance of the season despite the 1-0 scoreline.
It was more of the same one week later as a shell shocked
side's season literally came to an end. Chelsea
German hopeful's Schalke 04 waited in the Semi-Finals but in truth they were hopeless and are quite possibly the worst team ever to make it so far in the competition.
United slaughtered them in Germany to such an extent that Sir Alex Ferguson sent his second string XI out to play them in the second leg despite only having a 2-0 lead. Fergie knew best though as his reserves hammered Schalke 4-1.
Arguably, United and
have yet to face a challenge in this Champions League. Barcelona
Key Player: Javier Hernandez
The Little Pea, Chicharito, Hernandez, or Javier as his mother calls his has had nothing less than a sensational debut season for United.
When you further consider that Hernandez is a young man, displaced half way around the world in a culture that is strange to him, as well as adapting to playing for a club with the kind of demands that United has, you further realise that he has overcome huge hurdles in less time than experienced players like Dimitar Berbatov who took three years to settle.
His movement and positioning will be the key to unlocking
's defence. Barcelona
When Barca have the ball he will have to back track to the half way line and force either Pique or Puyol to follow him. If he can achieve this then he will instantly be a better option for a through ball or a one on one situation with his marker.
While achieving this, he will also be doing a second job by freeing space for Rooney to operate it and disrupting the shape of the
defence at the same time. Barcelona
The Key to Beating
How do you eat an elephant?
It is an age old question, but once you put your mind to the start of the task ahead and concentrate it becomes smaller by definition.
In other words - It can be done.
As mentioned before, every
move begins with Valdes, Puyol and Pique. Barcelona
Their importance to the whole effort cannot be underestimated.
For that reason, it is important that when
Barcelona has the ball that Wayne Rooney pushes up as far as possible to help Hernandez split the back three or four of . Barcelona
While they push up, United will have to go one-on-one across the rest of the pitch with, presumably, Rio Ferdinand acting as a sweeper.
Xavi and Iniesta must be picked up as quickly as possible to stop quick passes through central midfield and to shut the supply to the forwards off while Lionel Messi must either be passed on or shadowed as he roams across the final third.
With the supply lines to Messi, Villa, and Pedro now closed down,
should be forced to move the ball out wide to the roaming full backs. Barcelona
It is here, with great discipline and courage, that United have the best chance of exploiting La Blaugrana's biggest weakness, the space behind their marauding full backs and the lack of pace of their main central defensive pair.
If United can get in behind them and onto the backline with pace to cross, they should get the
defence on the half turn as Rooney and the wide midfielders arrive late into the box. Barcelona
Simple? Not really, it still requires every United player to have an 8/10 or 9/10 game to succeed.
"Two years ago, everyone said we were going to beat
Barcelona easily in . Maybe the opposite will happen this time. Rome
is very good at keeping the ball but football is not about keeping the ball, it is about scoring goals." Barcelona
"This year twisted on that game against Bursaspor. We won but everyone was criticising us.
"But, for all the trouble that was around the club [at the time], I felt then this team was more of a unit [than in 2009]. I just knew Manchester United was going to come together."
Didier Deschamps: Marseille Coach
"I love the competition and it was a huge joy to win it with
OM and Juventus as a player. The Champions League is a chance to play against the biggest European sides.
and United are great teams, the best in the world, with two different styles but one obsession, one aim: having the ball at their feet. With Barcelona , it's fabulous; with United, it's more controlled. The English side, unlike the Catalans, don't mind coming under pressure – they can hold tight 30 metres from their goal, lying in wait, and when they launch a counterattack they are so precise. Barcelona
"I prefer Barca because attacking play is the aim of football – getting the right result by having more possession than your opponent. They have played together for five, six, seven or eight years now. They are steeped in this style, it's natural to them. Watching their movement, you can only marvel at how they manage to instil their way of playing into players from all backgrounds – it is an impressive feat. Barca is strong in the middle with players like Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and then spectacular attackers like Lionel Messi.
"United defend very well and attack very sharply. Their plus point for this final will be Wayne Rooney because he is less tired than the others, he can make the difference. As well as being able to play four different positions, he never makes a mistake with his passing. He has great stamina and aggression.
"The relationship between Rooney and Javier Hernandez impresses me; in terms of movement, the latter is awesome. They always know where the other is, it is a perfect passing relationship. Playing them gave my players invaluable experience.
Lionel Messi is the top scorer in the Champions League with 11 goals in 12 games and has had more attempts on target than any other player in the competition with 31 shots.
Wayne Rooney by comparison has scored 3 goals from 8 games with just 15 shots on target.
Lionel Messi is the most fouled player in the competition having being fouled 30 times.
Manchester United is just behind with 58 percent possession.
Manchester United only concedes 0.33 goals per game compared to
who concede 0.67 goals per game. Barcelona
In fouls for; United average 13 per game to Barca's 11 per game, the 4th and 5th highest in this years competition.
1968: The total number of goals scored in the Premier League this season, and the same year that Manchester United won their first European Cup, at Wembley.
Undoubtedly, these two sides possess the two best teams in European football and it is highly intriguing to see how they go about each other in a game that promises to be as scientific as Chess.
Both managers have had questions asked of them domestically and in
Europe, and they have come up with the answers time after time after time, so it is going to be a titanic battle of wits come the final.
It is very hard to call a winner as both teams are on form, but when push comes to shove, I think
should win an open game. Barcelona
You can follow me on Twitter @WillieGannon