The excitement. The hype. Having lifted the Premier League trophy for the 19th time merely a week earlier, it was time to focus attentions for the all important trip to Wembley, to take on a Barcelona side who themselves had been crowned champions of their league.
Sir Alex Ferguson gave little away but was keen to stress that having wrapped up the title early, all attention would no be focused on preparing for what would hopefully be a momentous occasion, and the perfect farewell to the retiring Edwin Van Der Sar. Many column inches were devoted to discussing potential tactics, praising players on both sides and suggestions as to how Manchester United might set themselves up and ways in which they would prevent them from simply controlling the game with their strong possession play.
As the time drew near potential team selection was speculated, with the main arguments centred around who would start in midfield, with many believing Michael Carrick would get a starting berth ahead of Darren Fletcher, partnering Ryan Giggs, with Park and Valencia out wide. With the back line of Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, and Rooney and Hernandez up front, Ferguson looked to be going with what had settled as his regular line up in recent times, looking to set up positively and cause disruption in Barcelona’s style of play. And as his squad lined up and got into position for kick off, it was time to put the preparation to the test.
Despite the widely accepted belief that Barcelona were strong favourites, it was still a case of anything being possible on the big occasion. Despite a positive start that allowed the Catalan side little time on the ball, Pep Guardiola’s side soon settled, keeping possession with relative ease and making United chase the ball. The dominance paid off when in the 27th minute when Xavi played through to Pedro who calmly slotted home to give his side a 1-0 lead. Despite the setback, United capitalised on a mistake in Barcelona’s half on the right, with strong pressure that allowed Rooney and Giggs to play a one-two ending with Rooney placing a shot past Victor Valdes into the corner of the net, going into half time all square. However, after the break Guardiola’s side looked to put the game beyond reasonable doubt, as they asserted themselves on the game with Xavi and Iniesta controlling proceedings in the midfield and creating plenty going forward, adopting a policy of shoot on sight. And they were reward when Lionel Messi found himself with more space than should have been allowed and was able to fire home from outside the box on 54 minutes. For much of the second half United failed to register a shot as Barcelona took a stranglehold on proceedings, adding a finishing touch when on 69 minutes David Villa curled a shot past Van Der Sar after creative play from Messi. And so the game looked settled, with United struggling to find an answer or an opportunity, and Barcelona saw the game out at 3-1, and once again being crowned Champions of Europe. And for the final time this season, here are five things that may be taken from a disappointing trip to Wembley.
1) Barcelona – Deserved Winners
Stating the obvious, perhaps, but regardless it should be said Barcelona were simply the better team. Their ability to keep the ball so well when in possession and to apply so much pressure when without it was simply too much for United’s midfield to handle. Michael Carrick was simply made to look anonymous at times, and although Park was full of energy in chasing the ball, he simply found little luck against them. Of course when they remain in possession for so long then United have no chance going forward, and simply could not make use of the possession they had, often giving it away and resorting to long balls at times. The lack of control also meant Valencia was stuck out wide, having to carry out defensive duties with Fabio for much of the game and rarely providing Abidal with any trouble. The issue when playing such a side is that players may tend to get frustrated, and there may have been worries in the first half when careless tackles went in. As well as this, the lack of attacking play meant Hernandez was virtually a lone target up front for much of the game, with little service that lead to him being called offside more than having much to do. The way that Barcelona set up to play was too much to handle, going forward in large numbers with a midfield that refuses to give anything away, allowing their attacking players in Pedro, Messi and Villa to have free reign in troubling United’s defence. Despite Vidic’s best efforts, the Catalan side were simply too strong going forward and could do little when they began to start shooting from distance in the second half.
2) Did Ferguson get the team selection wrong?
It is, of course, unclear whether or not a different starting line up will have altered the outcome of the final, but one must wonder if United set up correctly facing up to a side known to dominate possession and essentially starve the opposition of the ball until the match is won. With a four man midfield it could be argued that United were inadequately equipped to cope in the middle of the pitch. It could be argued that Darren Fletcher could have had benefit in a 5 man midfield, possibly with the idea of disrupting their play and not allowing them time on the ball, with Hernandez given a role on the bench for later in the game. As well as this, it may have been beneficial to start with Nani from the beginning. Valencia’s form has been superb and his traditional tendencies on the wing may have helped in his choosing for the game, leaving United less exposed on the right but Nani may well have created more attacking options to a plan that had little effect for most of the game. The Portuguese winger’s introduction for Fabio later on seemed to show this with glimpses of a potential threat, although his efforts were in vain.
3) Have we seen the last of Berbatov?
The biggest surprise to the pre-match talk was the announcement that Dimitar Berbatov would not even have a place on the bench for Saturday’s showpiece. With Michael Owen preferred, Ferguson opted for substitute options weighted towards the midfield, with Anderson, Scholes and Fletcher occupying places. Despite a prolific season in front of goal for United, the Bulgarian striker has found himself increasingly coming off the bench in games, in part due to the form of Hernandez. However, despite his form, in Europe he has been left wanting on many occasions, often failing to find the net and get on the scoresheet. But for a player that thrives on confidence this will undoubtedly have been a big setback, and if rumours that he left the stadium before kick off are to be believed, then we can say that probability that Berbatov will be sent to pastures new, is somewhat high. If this is true then I think it unfortunate for someone who had just found their way within the United side, but with big changes forecast at Old Trafford this Summer, it remains to be seen what impact such decisions will have.
4) Could the defence have set up better?
Barcelona being as relentless as they had going forward, it was always more than likely that they would find themselves on the scoresheet. Able to cut open the back line in a matter of a couple of passes, the defenders will have had an extremely tough task in preventing conceding, particularly when the midfield was being made to chase the ball so much. However, one still has to question whether certain aspects could have been better. For example, one may ask whether Messi was allowed far too much space to shoot for Barcelona’s second, something which had been threatened on more than one occasion with others. Van Der Sar’s position for said goal has always been thought upon although it could be argued he was not expecting Messi to shoot as he did. Finally, the space allowed for Pedro to go in on goal in the first half is something that may well be considered far too easy. Perhaps the preoccupation in marking Messi meant more space was available for others to create chances, perhaps Barcelona’s possession made these chances inevitable. Regardless, some United fans will wonder if the set up could have been better going into the game.
5) Lionel Messi – The Key
Enough superlatives have been written about the Argentine superstar without this writer continuing to add to that list. But the magnificent skills of Messi with the ball at his feet is without comparison and the way he is able to play as though the ball had been glued to his feet even with defenders attempting to challenge him leaves many in awe. His creative play and effectiveness on the ball puts him on the pinnacle of world football with good cause. However, a note should also be made of Barcelona as a team, where the majority of the side represented the Spanish national side in being crowned World Champions last year. With such unity and familiarity, as well as the culture that is associated with being a youth player at the club it is small wonder that they are able to develop into such a strong squad. Time will tell whether it is considered the greatest club side of all time.
So United fans found their season ending on a disappointing note. Second best throughout, the Champions of England simply could not find an answer to an ever incredible Barcelona side. Sir Alex Ferguson will undoubtedly pick his players up, refreshed for a new season and with a new challenge to mount on all fronts, domestically and in Europe. It has been a season of success, and fans can be in no doubt that Ferguson will be as hungry as ever for more silverware and for another chance to be crowned European Champions. A disappointing end, but Manchester United move on, ready for another season.