Though Inter Milan's treble with Jose Mourinho at the helm was a fantastic accomplishment, last season's UEFA Champions League final lacked a little bit of luster. Inter and Bayern Munich are huge clubs, no doubt, but there's just something different about the game when two of the greatest teams from Spain and England are involved. This year, the general viewing public has gotten their wish. Manchester United, the champions of England, and FC Barcelona, champions of Spain, square off at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, May 28 for the biggest prize in world football.
With all due respect to Real Madrid, who are certainly in the running, these are quite possibly the two biggest teams in the game. They have two of the biggest names in Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney, two of the biggest stadiums, two iconic managers...we could do this for hours. This matchup hypes itself, so let's get straight to the football.
It's been a bit of an up and down season for Manchester United, but everything changed when Wayne Rooney was moved to his best position. Rooney's versatility is what makes him one of the best players in the world, but United's recent success has been linked to his settling in one position; playing in the hole behind Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez. United don't play a typical 4-2-3-1 formation, as Rooney is not a traditional No. 10 while Hernandez is not a traditional back-to-goal forward, but it's successful to a surprising degree.
There's no secret what Barcelona are going to do in this game, and their tactics are not an ever-evolving thing based on personnel like Manchester United's are under Alex Ferguson. According to manager Josep Guardiola and club leged Johan Cryuff, there is only one way to play the game, and that is the way that Barcelona play. They will line up in an extremely fluid 4-3-3 formation where Lionel Messi acts as more of a central playmaker, cutting in from his right forward starting position. Daniel Alves' play up the right flank makes up for the width lost when Messi goes inside, and Barcelona's defenders are good enough to cover when he gets caught upfield.
The last time these teams met was in the 2008-2009 Champions League final, when, like this season, they were widely considered to be two of the best three or so teams in the world. At that time, Messi was still on the brink of being considered as one of the best players in the world, but not quite over the threshold. It was Pep Guardiola's first season in charge, and he was seen as a great manager for Barcelona's personnel and ethos, if not slightly tactically naive. The game was widely considered to be dead even, with the English-speaking media giving the nod to Manchester United.
Most of the English-speaking media considered Messi to be a relatively soft player at this point; a player who was incapable of dealing with the physical style of play that Manchester United would come at him with. Messi not only dispelled that myth in the final, he absolutely shattered it. He put in what was the defining performance of his career to that point, tearing United's defense to shreds as Barcelona won 2-0.
So, what's different? On the Manchester United side, quite a bit. Though they're still going strong, legendary midfielders Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are now older. Cristiano Ronaldo is gone, but Nani has evolved into a world class winger, while Antonio Valencia has made an adequate replacement. Carlos Tevez is gone, replaced with Javier Hernandez. United played a 4-4-2/4-6-0 hybrid with two false nines for most of that season, but their setup is now much different. Rooney is much more of a No. 10 than a false nine, while Chicharito spends most of his time sitting on the back shoulder of the defense.
For Barcelona, little has changed. The starting midfield of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets is still intact. Forwards Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry have been replaced with David Villa and Pedro, a virtual push. The biggest addition has been Daniel Alves, who will be a much different player at right back than Carles Puyol, a traditional central defender, was in that 2009 final.
Whether or not Manchester United are a better team today than they were on that day in 2009 could be an extensive series of standalone articles, but there's no question that Barcelona are a better team than they were on that day. Xavi is the same player, while all of Messi, Iniesta, Busquets, Gerard Pique, and Victor Valdes have improved since then. Daniel Alves is arguably the best attacking fullback in the world. Barcelona are a slightly better version of the team that defeated Manchester United in the final two years ago.
So, why believe that Manchester United has a chance to win? There are a couple of good reasons. First of all, even if they are inferior to the 2009 team, they are a different team. Neither Rooney or Tevez was a goal poacher, looking for every opportunity to get behind the defense. Barcelona usually play a high defensive line, and there is a decent chance that Chicharito will have chances to exploit that. Second, their manager is Alex Ferguson, and he's pulled off lesser miracles.
Barcelona are widely considered to be the best team in the world and they are slight favorites for Saturday's final, but there is a reason I emphasized 'slight.' Manchester United are talented enough to beat any team in the world, and their manager is intelligent enough to outsmart any manager in the world. If there's a team that can take down mighty Barcelona, Manchester United is that team.
For news, opinion, and feature articles leading up to the UEFA Champions League final, bookmark this StoryStream and check it often. We'll have new posts right here throughout the week, during the game, and after the game. For more on the entire world of footy, check out SB Nation Soccer. Manchester United fans should head over to The Busby Babe, while Barcelona fans should check out Barca Blaugranes.