Clash of the titans

Barcelona, Manchester United set to light up Wembley in title decider tonight

Lionel Messi (left) carries Barcelona’s hopes while Manchester United will rely on Wayne Rooney’s striking prowess . AFP

A second triumph in three years — and their third since 2006 — will provide irrefutable proof that Pep Guardiola’s team deserve to be bracketed alongside legendary teams like Real Madrid’s 1950s vintage, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax or the Dutch-influenced AC Milan of the 1990s.

Blocking the route to immortality, however, are United, the newly crowned English champions who are desperate to avenge their bitterly disappointing defeat to the Spanish giants in the Rome final two years ago.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has never spoken in detail about what he believes went wrong in 2009, when his team were taken for a dizzying ride on Barcelona’s famous midfield ‘carousel’ in a 2-0 defeat. The obvious temptation for Ferguson as United attempt to avoid a repeat of that chastening experience, is to bolster his midfield with an extra man.

Yet to do so would mean having to sacrifice the burgeoning partnership between Wayne Rooney, back to something close to his best, and Javier Hernandez, the young Mexican striker who has been the find of United’s season. The bolder option would be to keep faith with the midfield formation which served United so well en route to the final: a central pairing of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick flanked by Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung, with Rooney dropping deep when Barcelona are in possession.

Ferguson has hinted that he is leaning towards a tactical approach that is more in keeping with United’s attacking traditions. “We have players who can cause any team a lot of bother and hopefully those attacking players will give Barcelona the problems that everyone thinks they are going to give us,” Ferguson said.

Yet the threats for United are obvious and many.
To prevail at Wembley they will have to come up with a gameplan that neutralises an attack led by Lionel Messi, operating in front of a bejeweled midfield encrusted with the twin talents of Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.

United will take encouragement from the fact that other teams have already demonstrated that Barcelona can be vulnerable against opponents who counter-attack at speed.

Arsenal scored a 2-1 victory over the Catalans in the last 16 first leg in February, stunning Guardiola’s men with two late goals to claim a narrow advantage. The asterisk against that memorable night in north London however is that Barcelona would have been out of sight by half-time had it not been for uncharacteristic profligacy by Messi and David Villa.

The message Ferguson has been drumming into his players is that one lapse of concentration could be fatal. “Concentration will be vital,” he said.

Probable teams: Manchester United: 1-Edwin van der Sar; 20-Fabio, 5-Rio Ferdinand, 15-Nemanja Vidic, 3-Patrice Evra; 25-Antonio Valencia, 16-Michael Carrick, 11-Ryan Giggs, 13-Park Ji-Sung; 10-Wayne Rooney, 14-Javier Hernandez.  Barcelona: 1-Victor Valdes; 2-Daniel Alves, 3-Gerard Pique, 5-Carles Puyol, 22-Eric Abidal; 16-Sergio Busquets, 6-Xavi, 8-Andres Iniesta; 17-Pedro, 10-Lionel Messi, 7-David Villa. Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).

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