BARCELONA may be called Europe’s finest side, but Manchester United won’t travel to Wembley without hope tomorrow.
The Catalan giants are probably the best club side Europe has seen since the all-conquering AC Milan outfit of the early ‘90s.
Under Pep Guardiola they have enjoyed phenomenal success, winning the Spanish League three times in a row, the Copa Del Rey once and Champions League once. Not surprisingly, the club also boasts a significant presence in the Spanish national team that won Euro 2008 and the world cup in 2010.
Considering the way they brushed past United in the Rome 2009 Champions League final and you’ve an idea how big the Manchester side’s task is. Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez’s loss weakened United while Barcelona, having signed David Villa in the summer, are better than they were in 2009.
But there success has had its own pitfalls, particularly for the Spanish players. Barcelona may have comfortably retained La Liga but, in recent weeks, have looked noticeably fatigued, drawing two and losing one of their last five league games.
It’s hardly a crisis but it does offer Alex Ferguson reason for optimism.
Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side defeated both Barcelona and United this season, believes Ferguson’s men can take advantage of Barca’s tiredness, claiming the Catalans have been “on their knees” in recent weeks.
“I believe against Barcelona, on what I have seen in the last three weeks, there will never be a better moment maybe to win it against them,” he said.
“They look quite exhausted and Manchester United look quite sharp physically in the last three or four games. They look on their knees so I would give United a good chance.”
One of most impressive features about Pep’s side is that while they invariable monopolise possession for long periods, no side in world football works harder to win back the ball when the opposition has it.
Guardiola doesn’t tolerate prima donnas. That the players, particularly the Spanish ones, have pressed opponents so relentlessly for three seasons is a tribute to their fitness and desire. That said, while their performances suggest otherwise, these players are only human and because of Spain’s successes in recent tournaments, and their involvement in the Confederations Cup in 2009, some of these players have had just three months off in three years. Psychically and mentally, that inevitably takes a toll.
Tomorrow’s final will be Barcelona’s 60th game of the season and eight players almost certain to feature, David Villa (50), Pedro (51), Seydou Keita (53), Dani Alves (51) and Lionel Messi (52), Andres Iniesta (48), Xavi (48) and Gerard Pique (49) have played 80% or more of their games.
That’s before you factor in internationals. As Spain’s strongest club side, Barcelona had seven players in Spain’s world cup winning squad while an eighth, David Villa, joined the club shortly afterwards. By contrast United had no player involved beyond the last 16 in South Africa. Of course, United too have played a lot of games this season, tomorrow’s will be their 61st. This too is their third Champions League final they’ve reached in four years.
There’s a significant difference though. While Barcelona have used the same core group of players throughout the season United, particularly in midfield, have made full use of a big squad. Ryan Giggs has been their star man and made 37 appearances, while Michael Carrick (43), Paul Scholes, (32), Darren Fletcher (37), Antonio Valencia (19), Park Ji-sung (27), Darron Gibson (20) and Anderson (30) have also played their part.
The recent return from injury of Anderson, Park and most importantly Valencia gave United added impetus in the title run-in and against a weary Barcelona side their freshness could be a big factor.
“What’s helped us lately is the freshness of players coming back,” Ferguson said recently.
“Valencia and Ji-Sung Park are two that have come back. Anderson is another. There has been a lot of added impetus at an important time.
“Valencia’s form has been terrific, Park has been doing a magnificent job and Anderson has been doing really well. It’s been a real boost to us.”
A real boost to United and real worry for Guardiola who, like Ferguson, rested a string of first teamers for Barcelona’s final league game last weekend and hinted afterwards at a concern about his side’s physical well-being.
“We will be working on aspects of our game, in attack and defence, with the aim of ensuring that the players go into the game as fresh, mentally and physically, as possible,” he said last weekend.
From Ferguson’s perspective, hoping tiredness will blunt Barcelona’s edge might seem like clutching at straws, fanciful even, but against a team as formidable and talented as the Catalans, it might just be United’s best chance of claiming a fourth European Cup.
Guardiola, in contrast, will hope his team can go to well one more time on the biggest stage of all.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved