Promise of high drama

Despite the glitter of stars in both camps, it is the current holder of the Ballon d’Or, Cristiano Ronaldo, and his likely successor, Lionel Messi, that seem primed to set Rome alight on May 27, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Barcelona and Manchester United — two of Europe’s most iconic football clubs, and yet, two clubs that have somehow underachieved on Europe’s biggest stage. Having won, respectively, only three and two European Cups in total, United and Barcelona trail Real Madrid, AC Milan, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax — clubs that rank no higher in terms of history and arrays of individual greats — in European glory.

History beckons both sides on May 27 in Rome, in a Champions League final that promises high drama. If United wins, it will become the first team in history to defend the Champions League title — eight teams won back-to-back European Cups in its earlier, knock-out format. Victory for Sir Alex Ferguson will make him only the second manager, after Liverpool’s Bob Paisley, to win three European Cups.

A Barcelona win would make the Catalans the first Spanish team to achieve a treble — Primera Liga, King’s Cup and Champions League titles in the same season. Coach Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola could become the sixth person in history, after Miguel Munoz, Giovanni Trapattoni, Johan Cruyff, Carlo Ancelotti and Frank Rijkaard, to win the European Cup as both player and manager.

Then there are the contrasts: The final will pit the oldest manager among the teams competing in this season’s Champions League against the youngest. Ferguson was in his fifth year as Manchester United manager when a 19-year-old Guardiola made his first team debut in Barcelona’s midfield. Statistically, United, in addition to its mid-season 14-game clean sheet streak in the Premier League, has conceded just six goals in its 12 Champions League games this season, while Barcelona is the first side in 12 years to score 100 La Liga goals in a season.

Will the final therefore throw up the ‘irresistible force versus immovable object’ paradox?

As demonstrated by United and, nearly, Chelsea in successive semifinals, Barcelona’s command of possession doesn’t necessarily translate into goalscoring opportunities against resolute, massed defences. But semifinals are two-legged affairs, replete with the subtext of away goals. A final, at a neutral venue, is entirely different.

We can be reasonably certain about how Barcelona will play. Skewed possession stats are likely. Ferguson will admit, if not publicly, that Manchester United is unlikely to match Barcelona’s ball-retention — no team on the planet, not even the Spanish national side to which Barcelona contributes so heavily, can.

Of Barcelona’s first-choice midfield trio, Xavi Hernandez and Yaya Toure have pass success rates of more than 90 per cent in the Champions League this season, and Andres Iniesta — who has sometimes filled in on the left-wing — nearly 88. Even Seydou Keita and Sergei Busquets, the two back-up central midfielders, have achieved pass success rates of more than 86 per cent. These guys simply do not give the ball away.

Reading from right to left, Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry — who have between them scored over 90 goals this season in all competitions — will play furthest forward in a genuine 4-3-3, which does not morph into 4-5-1 without the ball.

When Barcelona loses possession, the midfield and front threes will press concertedly, denying their opponents space and time on the ball. In both legs of the semifinal, Chelsea’s paucity of possession wasn’t down to any serious technical deficiency, but because of Barcelona’s relentless pressing high up the pitch; it is a style uncommon to the Premier League where teams defend extremely deep when confronted with ‘Big Four’ opposition, a ploy described de rigeur as ‘parking the bus’.

In the final, United’s midfield will have to contend with a bus, so to speak, looming in their faces, blinding them with headlights on high beam. Under such pressure, Ferguson will have to make sure that his side doesn’t give the ball away in dangerous areas of the pitch. This in turn poses him his most difficult tactical question — “4-3-3 or 4-4-1-1?” or in other words “Dimitar Berbatov or an extra central midfielder?”

From the trend shown by Ferguson’s selection in ‘big’ matches, and from noises made to the press, we can list Ferguson’s almost-certain starters. The back five — goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar, full-backs John O’Shea and Patrice Evra and the indomitable central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic — almost pick themselves, while Wayne Rooney and Park Ji Sung will occupy the wings, judging from their tireless displays against Arsenal in the semifinal and the need to help the fullbacks contain Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s pace is essential to launching counter-attacks — a likely source of goals for United — and he will start up front as he did so devastatingly against Arsenal.

The elegant Michael Carrick is the only certainty in the middle of midfield; who and how many partner him is Ferguson’s — pardon the pun — central conundrum. A red card — in some eyes unjustified — in the semifinal second leg rules Darren Fletcher out. The Scot would surely have started otherwise, for he has been one of United’s most influential players this season. His box-to-box runs and stamina to harry and close down opponents for 90 minutes might be his most visible trait, but no less impressive has been his calm, mature passing. He is the only United midfielder apart from the metronomic Paul Scholes to achieve a pass success rate of over 85 in both the Premier League and in Europe.

At 34, Scholes still has the technique, composure and eye for a pass that has made him one of the most accomplished European midfielders of the last decade, but suffers somewhat in terms of mobility and dynamism to the 19-year-old Brazilian Anderson. If Carrick is to partner only one other central midfielder, it is likely to be Scholes, considering his performance in last season’s semifinal, which he decided with a 30-yard wallop in the second leg. In the first leg at Nou Camp, Scholes was United’s most composed performer, finding a team-mate with 89 per cent of his passes in a game where United’s share of the overall possession was a meagre 28 per cent.

In that match, Xavi made more passes, 123, than the entire United midfield. Under Guardiola, Barcelona has been a far more potent attack than under Frank Rijkaard last year, and Ferguson knows that Barcelona is unlikely to repeat its scoreless display of last season if allowed so much possession. This means that a three-man central midfield of Carrick, Scholes and Anderson — or Ryan Giggs, the PFA Player of the Season, instead of one of the latter two — could be employed to nullify Barcelona’s similarly numbered midfield.

However, Barcelona will be without its first-choice back four. Fullbacks Dani Alves and Eric Abidal are both suspended and centre-half Rafael Marquez is injured. Skipper Carles Puyol, while more than sound defensively, doesn’t offer the same attacking threat that the continually overlapping Alves does down the right flank.

Brazilian left-back Sylvinho, who is likely to replace Abidal, is 35 and has played only a handful of matches all season. As partner for former United centre-half Gerard Pique, Guardiola will have to choose between the 22-year-old Uruguayan Martin Caceres or, as he did in the second leg of the semifinal against Chelsea, disturb his first-choice midfield by playing Yaya Toure there.

Faced with a makeshift Barcelona defence, Ferguson might just be tempted to forego the extra midfielder and deploy Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov, who arguably has the silkiest first touch in the world, just behind Ronaldo to come deep and influence play, linking the midfield to the unpredictable movement of Ronaldo, Rooney and Park. The energy and work rate of Carlos Tevez is another option, either to start and harass the Barca back four, or come off the bench to increase the tempo of play in what might just be his final appearance for the club.

With rumours of a departure to Real Madrid refusing to die, the final might be Ronaldo’s last game for United as well. Mouthwateringly, it could be the game that decides — for a day or two — who the world’s best player is, Ronaldo or Messi. The Portuguese rides high, after two goals and an assist against in a dominant semifinal performance against Arsenal. Barcelona’s high back-line cannot afford a moment’s loss of concentration to let Ronaldo through on goal.

On the other hand, two quiet semifinal legs gave rise to loud proclamations that Messi is overrated. Yet, in that quiet semifinal, Messi managed to make the decisive assist that gave Andres Iniesta the goal that propelled Barca into the final. Surrounded by two, sometimes three Chelsea defenders, the Argentinean never gave the ball away. Dragging his markers all over the pitch, he made space for Dani Alves to cross repeatedly — erratically, yes, but that wasn’t Messi’s fault — into the box. Overrated? No way, the man has scored 40 goals this season.

And so, despite Rooney, Eto’o, Berbatov or Iniesta, despite the glitter of the other stars in both camps, it is the current holder of the Ballon d’Or and his likely successor that seem primed to set Rome alight on the 27th.