Monday, May 2, 2011

Are Manchester United equipped to stifle Barcelona's brilliance?

Assuming that Manchester United and Barcelona are able to hold serve this week, they are on a collision course to face each other in the UEFA Champions League Final.

The topic of debate when posed with the task of being pitted against Barcelona has always been how to shut down their attacking prowess.

Alan Hansen of the Guardian writes of the choices (or lack of choices) that Sir Alex Ferguson is faced with in putting together a game plan to take Manchester United's best shot at Barcelona.

He must do what Inter Milan did last year and what Real Madrid tried to do last week. He must kill the game and, to the purists, spoil the occasion. It is not pretty.

But it is the only way to win.

What Mourinho’s Madrid did in the Bernabeu on Wednesday night was hellish to watch. It made one of the most appetising semi-finals in recent years a non-event.

Barcelona did not cover themselves in glory, with their histrionics and theatrics, but it was Mourinho’s tactics which made for an almost tragic spectacle.

For a Real Madrid manager to do that is almost unthinkable. At home, in the Champions League, with the world watching, with all of the history and tradition of the Bernabeu, and when he will never have a better chance to get at Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola was so starved of defensive options that he was forced to play Javier Mascherano as a centre-back. Cristiano Ronaldo could have caused him all sorts of problems. And still Mourinho sat back.

That is because he knows that almost the only way to beat Barcelona is with the blueprint his Inter side produced last season. They must not be allowed to play. They must be stifled, allowed the ball in their own half and then, as soon as Xavi or Andres Iniesta look to break forward, they must be closed down, swarmed around. They cannot be allowed to build a pattern or enjoy any fluidity. It requires incredible focus and remarkable discipline.

Ferguson will know that is the only game plan that can be expected to have any chance of success against a team that are being discussed as one of the greatest in history. After all, he has done it before.

In 2008, United squeezed past Barcelona, in the final year of Frank Rijkaard’s reign, on their way to winning the Champions League against Chelsea in Moscow. The problem is that, since that point, Barcelona have probably gone up a level in terms of the quality of their performances. United have dropped down two.

Every team has a cycle. For United, this would be their third Champions League final in four years, and it is safe to say this incarnation is past its peak. That occurred in the first final, in 2008, when a defence built on the omnipotence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand was complemented by an attack of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tévez and Cristiano Ronaldo.

That team has gradually become less and less of a force. It is hardly surprising when they have allowed players of the quality of Ronaldo and Tévez to leave, but now they are susceptible to having a poor game not just twice or three times a season, as they used to, but in every two or three away games.

They have the air of a team that is built to excel in one off games.

But eventually a side like that will hit a brick wall. The danger is that, if Ferguson attempts to play United’s usual game against Barcelona, they will fail to perform. It is one thing having an off day against Arsenal, as United did on Sunday, but against a team as good as Guardiola’s in front of 90,000 at Wembley and millions more around the world? They would get hammered.

So he will be tempted not to do as he did in the 2009 final, when Barcelona exacted their revenge for the 2008 semi-final and breezed past a United built to attack, and to set his side up to frustrate a superior opponent, as Mourinho does so well.

The 69-year-old will not be fazed by the purists. I played in four European Cup finals, won three and they were all absolutely dire games. They were not exciting in the slightest. You should try telling that to the team who have just won, though. Nobody ever says they won the European Cup but it didn’t count because the final wasn’t up to much. All that matters is that you win. Ferguson will do anything to make sure that is the case.

No comments:

Post a Comment