Tomorrow's UEFA Champions League Final (2:45 PM EST, FOX) between Manchester United versus Barcelona has the feel of a championship prize fight, and all the makings of the spectator spectacle that goes with being the title for Europe's top club.
Zonal Marking offers a tactical preview of the two European heavyweights.
Everyone agrees that the main decision at the start will come from Ferguson. Should he continue to use Javier Hernandez, a key part of Ferguson’s recent ‘big game’ side, or drop the Mexican in order to use another central midfielder, and go for more of a defensive system? Hernandez starting would certainly be the popular move.
The decision is perhaps more complicated than many think. The obvious argument is that Hernandez’s lightning pace – he was the quickest player at the World Cup last summer – will catch out Barcelona’s high line. In fact, Hernandez has done something very similar last year at international level against Carles Puyol and other Barca players.
For such a pacey player, however, Hernandez hasn’t scored a great number of goals in this fashion. There was the recent opener in the league clash against Chelsea, but the primary cause of that goal was David Luiz’s mistake rather than Hernandez’s pace itself. Most of his goals have been poacher’s strikes from close range, often after crosses. Getting the ball wide and then centring it remains United’s natural approach, and they are simply not used to playing through balls – not when compared to, say, how Liverpool used Fernando Torres’ pace so blatantly with balls into the channels.
Besides, Hernandez hasn’t been particularly influential in games that are likely to take the same pattern as this one – ie with the opposition dominating possession. Against Arsenal at the Emirates recently, United only had 45% of possession and Hernandez only completed four passes in open play, and there’s a suspicion that he doesn’t contribute an awful lot when he doesn’t have the ball. He didn’t have a shot in that game, and the same was true in the league game at Stamford Bridge. He would still be a huge threat and probably United’s best chance of a goal if he started, but Ferguson has to balance that threat against the fact that the midfield would be more open, and United might struggle to get the ball forward.
What Hernandez does, however (even without touching the ball) is force the opposition defence to play deeper, which then opens up the gap between the lines of defence and midfield, and creates more space for Wayne Rooney. But whereas Chelsea, for example, were clueless at times without a true holding player, Barca have Sergio Busquets who will stay goalside of Rooney.
The case for playing another central midfielder looks stronger when you consider that Barcelona are far more possession-orientated than they were in 2009. United have a destroyer, but then they don’t need one – often you can’t get close enough to Barca to get a tackle in. What you do need is mobility, and it’s questionable whether there’s enough of that from Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in a duo, though the energy of the front three/four makes up for that to a certain extent.
Of course, the fitness worries of the candidates for the potential third central midfield position come into play here. Anderson and Fletcher might only be able to last 50 minutes. But Ferguson must be tempted to accept that, play either of them for that amount of time and tell them to close down and press like mad, safe in the knowledge they won’t have to play the full game, so tiring it not a problem. Then, as Arsenal have done twice in two years, really go for it in the final 25 minutes – it was notable how much Theo Walcott’s pace troubled Barcelona at the Emirates last year, and Hernandez might have the same effect.
Mike Woitalla of Soccer America writes of the brilliance of Lionel Messi.
“I make smarter decisions,” Messi said. “I know what I’m capable of, and that makes a big difference. I’m playing with incredible self-confidence. During a game I have crazy ideas in the head and am confident enough to turn them into something.”
Paul Kennedy of Soccer America writes of the phenom known as 'Chicharito'.
"We thought he was a young lad who was going to progress and maybe have to get used to our training and English football," says United manager Alex Ferguson, "but he's been an absolute star and a real bonus for us." Hernandez has quickly won the respect of United star Wayne Rooney with whom he will lead the attack. "Lil Pea is the real deal," Rooney recently tweeted. "[He's the] buy of the century."