As the countdown to the biggest game in European football continues, with the Champions League final between favourites Barcelona and Man Utd drawing ever closer, it’s clear that the battle will be won and lost in the middle of midfield; with that in mind, which midfield players offer Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges the best hope of containing and stopping the Catalonian juggernaut?
It’s clear that Barcelona are the best side currently operating in world football at the moment. Hyperbole has been poured on them by better writers than me, suffice to say that they are dazzlingly resplendent (will that do?). The metronomic stylings of Xavi and Busquets coupled with the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Iniesta make them formidable opponents. Not to mention the bustling play of perhaps European football’s most underrated player, Seydou Keita. A daunting task if ever there was one.
The battle in the 2009 final in Rome was won and lost rather unsurprisingly in the centre of midfield with Michael Carrick et al hopelessly out of their depth on that occasion. But this is a different final, and arguably both sides have evolved since Rome. Choosing which midfield to combat the Barcelona engine room, or ‘merry go round’ as Ferguson rather affectionately nicknamed the midfield trio prior to the 2009 final, remains the great Scot’s biggest selection headache.
The fact of the matter is that there is no set way to combat Barcelona. The option of flooding the midfield has been tried time and time again and to no quantifiable success. Crowding the midfield simply prepares the conditions for which the Cantera was originally designed for; passing quickly and accurately around the opposition in tight spaces.
Setting up with banks of four and playing on the counter attack, as Inter Milan did to great success last season under Jose Mourinho is another method. Yet it could be argued that Man Utd simply do not possess the players to pursue such a method. Positional discipline is not their strong suit.
It is almost a given that in order to stop Barcelona, or at least go toe-to-toe with them, you need to deploy a three-man central midfield. With this in mind then, which players should make the three? Or to put it more pertinently, which players are likely to comprise the three?
The nadir of Michael Carrick’s Man Utd career came against Barcelona in 2009. He was a passenger in what was a poor team performance. Carrick’s form has only just started to fully recover after the lesson he was handed that fateful evening. Carrick though appears to be back in Ferguson’s good books and it’s worth noting that he’s started Man Utd’s recent big games against each of Man City, Chelsea and Arsenal and he looks likely to start. If it were me though, he’d start on the bench.
Ji-Sung Park is the quintessential big-game player and his energy could be a useful asset in the middle of the park (please forgive the unintended pun). His ability to both break up play, stick to a man and offer a threat going forward make him a guaranteed starter in my book and probably Sir Alex’s too for that matter.
Paul Scholes has been mooted in many parts as being a guaranteed starter for the final. If this nugget of information is true, then it is a worrying sign of things to come. It simply falls into the trap of trying to play Barca at their own possession-obsessed game. Scholes has been a liability at times this season. Bereft of what semblance of tackling ability he may have once possessed (no laughing in the back there), to put it quite simply, he’s an accident waiting to happen. An off-form Scholes should be consigned to bench duty for this particular tie.
Darren Fletcher is an interesting one. A nailed on starter in everyone’s eyes should he be match fit, but a debilitating virus has seen him miss nearly two months of football. If he can demonstrate his fitness between now and the Barcelona game, he’s an absolute shoe-in and integral to the way Utd will set up.
Anderson is a strange player. I can’t quite fathom what goes through his head sometimes. He also appears to be carrying a bit too much timber for a true box-to-box midfielder. He’s wasteful in possession and while he does offer energy and a combativeness that Utd may otherwise sorely lack, his unpredictability should see him miss out.
Ryan Giggs – easy peasy lemon squeezy. An absolute must. He will play a vital role in linking Utd’s midfield with their attack. Can still be a match-winner and still boasts a deceptive turn of pace. Barcelona will be wary of what he can offer.
For my money, fitness permitting of course, I would line up with Fletcher, Park and Giggs in the middle against Barcelona. The likelihood of this triumvirate getting the chance to take on Barcelona though looks slim. To my knowledge, the aforementioned trio that I’ve selected offer a good blend of the energy, creativity and positional discipline needed to match Barcelona. I’d wager that if Ferguson chooses to line up with a three-man central midfield, he’s likely to plump for Carrick, Fletcher (fitness permitting, of course) and Giggs, but as everyone already knows, attempting to second-guess Ferguson is nye on impossible at the best of times.
It remains unlikely that Ferguson will look to start with both Nani and Valencia down the wings, but a 4-4-2 cannot yet be ruled out. The hindrance of such a formation against opponents such as Barcelona means that there is less pressure on the ball and less of a defensive shield against attacks. A 4-3-3 formation, while not perfect, may just offer that little bit more in what promises to be a truly engrossing spectacle.
What does everyone else think? Will Fergie line-up 4-4-2 or 4-3-3? And what would your midfield be for the final?
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