Having won the UEFA Champions League in 2005/06 (2-1 vs. Arsenal) and again in 2008/09 (2-0 vs. Manchester United), Spanish giants C. F. Barcelona now appear to be favourites to once again reclaim Europe’s most prestigious club competition following the semi-final first leg matches. According to statistics (from Opta Sports) no club has overturned a 2-0 defeat in 15 attempts at the semi-final stage of this competition, a result the Catalans achieved on April 27 against fierce rivals Real Madrid; all the better at the Santiago Bernabeu home of the Merengues.
The result may have been different had Real’s Portuguese defender and a sturdy defensive midfielder of late Pepe not been sent off quarter of an hour into the second half with scores still goalless, albeit it would be biased to let that take the shine off the very well executed brace by Argentine phenomenon Lionel Messi whose second saw him weasel past four white shirts before finally slotting past Iker Casillas for his 52nd goal of the season in all competitions for Barcelona and 36th goal in all his Champions League appearances, which has seen him go past German legend Gerd Muller on the all time top-scorers list.
Meanwhile a repeat of the 2008/09 final is on the cards after the Red Devils finally got two goals past the impressive Manuel Neuer of Schalke 04 in the second half after the German goalkeeper kept his side in the tie with a string of saves in the first half. Barring what happens to any of the teams’ players in the second leg matches, Manchester United stand in better frame to match the ingeniousness of Barcelona. However, it would be very difficult for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to reclaim a trophy it won in the 2007/08 season.
First factor going against United is the unfair fluidity Pep Guardiola’s charges have attained when it comes to team play, which leaves opposition teams either having to play a faster pace game, have at least a 90% completion rate in its passing game and then have a minimum of three players that each can produce a moment of magic from any part of the pitch. There also is going about grinding the game to scrap, not allowing Barcelona the fluidity they have perfected and successfully implemented in a majority of matches in all competitions this season before then going about to win such match.
And yes, United’s attacking third comprising an in-form Wayne Rooney with goals and assists paired with this season’s revelation in perhaps all of Europe, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez with his great technique at positioning and not just goals scored but important match winners time and again that have seen him earn himself a starting shirt ahead of Dimitar Berbatov (left out completely in the Champions League semi-final first leg at Germany) can pose quite a threat to the rampaging Catalans.
This is complemented by Edwin van Der Sar who stands stalwart between the sticks, the imposing Nemanja Vidic who is the heart of the Red Devils’ defence and a midfield based more on effectiveness than on flair through veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs alongside Michael Carrick and Anderson with Nani especially and Antonio Valencia most capable of the flair part of the business.
All that said, whichever of the aforementioned midfielders Sir Alex puts in the starting line-up must play like they sometimes have over this season in order to not see Rooney having to come deep just to get a feel of the round leather, a scenario the Red Devils team must avoid otherwise Chicharito would be left isolated upfront and Rooney would have been taken some distance from a range where he can actually cause damage.
It would be the best starting Scholes as he has the ability to achieve a pass completion rate the Barcelona forwards enjoy supply from their midfield while starting Giggs would be a better idea than starting Luis Nani as the vastly experienced Welshman has been more consistent over the season and more so lately than the Portuguese whom one isn’t sure would turn up on match-day. Carrick is also capable of achieving a good pass completion rate but like Nani, one can never know which Michael would turn up on match-day.
Based on this seeming uncertainty in midfield that normally would not be glaring against most other oppositions, United may still just find Barcelona a riddle a bit too hard to sort out.