Every week, football fans pass each other in the office hallways, gather on the factory floor and around the water coolers at gym. We discuss the games to come, the potential outcomes and how those results will determine the fates and fortunes of our favourite clubs and players. That’s what makes the UEFA Champions League Final the immensely magnetic event that it is.
There are NO more league games left. No more bouts of football that offer log position changing results or reputation creating moments for the hungriest of players. All but one is done. One final battle that all fans will be focused on, and if the club you support isn’t involved in this massive spectacle, then you’re inevitably picking a side.
Saturday, 28th May 2011. Not only is it the biggest annual club match in the world, but this years final also sported two of the biggest clubs in the world. Both sides last featured in a Champions League Final in 2009, when Barcelona claimed a comfortable 2-0 victory over Manchester United at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
In the red corner: Manchester United have sported a less convincing side this past season than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing, yet Fergie‘s men showed a top-shelf level of discipline and consistency that overshadowed teams that seemed bigger challengers on paper. This proved to be key in their haul of a record 19th Premier League title and their climb to the Champions League final.
In the blue corner: FC Barcelona have had a tremendous 2010-2011 La Liga campaign, not only winning the Spanish league for the 3rd consecutive season, but beating Jose Mourinho’s superstar-studded Real Madrid side in what was a two horse race for the title.
Almost as if the 2009 Final script was revisited, the echo of the whistle to kickoff had barely faded and the Red Devils were let loose like hunting dogs. United’s applied pressure gained them an early dominance and the Catalans struggled to create a rhythm or adequate possession of any kind. Unfortunately, closing down a team at this rate is nearly impossible to keep up for 90 minutes and it didn’t take too long for Barca to gain momentum and control of the game’s pace. Barcelona maintained 67% possession in the first half of the game, spending most of it in the devil’s half of the pitch. They produced a continuous flow of attempts to get closer into the box where they usually prove to be most dangerous, but a commendable defensive effort from United broke down the attack systematically, forcing the Catalans to gamble on a series of ambitious, but unsuccessful attempts.
It was in the 27th minute that the game was opened by a trademark Barca counterattack that allowed them space around United’s tight defence and saw Pedro net a clean shot from just outside the big box from a well-timed Xavi through ball. Seven minutes later, Wayne Rooney created, carried through and finished a beautiful run from the right flank, near midway on the pitch. Rooney’s second pass in his run was to a questionably off-side Ryan Giggs who’s touch back set Rooney up for an unstoppable shot.
The second half saw Barca pick up from where they ended the first half. Determined to regain their lead, they sped up the game pace, creating a number of dangerous opportunities with no reward until the 54th minute. During their typical predatory movement around United’s big box, Barca opened the perfect gap after Park Ji-Sung’s miss-timed attempt to intercept an Andreas Iniesta pass pulled him out of position and left Lionel Messi to pick up the pass and make use of the neglected space. A quick run at the defence dragged Patrice Evra across to overlap Nemanja Vidic, opening up a narrow gap for Messi to boot an elegant left foot shot past Edwin van der Sar.
United were unable to piece together a solid attempt at equalizing as Barca conducted the momentum for the remainder of the game. One can never write off Fergie’s men though, as they’ve proved on countless occasions in the past by turning games around at the death and creating goals from minimal possession. However, red hearts dropped and belief in a game turnaround was diluted in the 69th minute when David Villa added his name to the score sheet in a ‘stand & deliver’ fashion. Once again, Messi was involved as he made another defence-trailing run into the box and his misplaced pass was repossessed by Sergio Busquets in a shaky defensive shuffle, then laid back to Villa who placed a sublime shot into the top right corner from a near stationary position outside the big box.
United fought hard but were given little time on the ball to make any significant headway. There was much speculation by pundits prior to the match as to its final result. United had just won the league after a great run of form and the possibility of the tables turning is always more likely to be expected when two teams with similar lineups face each other for a second final in short succession (as with Liverpool and AC Milan in the 2005 and 2007 finals). United were also on English soil and the likes of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey and Arsenal in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal proved that Barcelona CAN be floored. Still, it’s no textbook task.
Acknowledging the fact that a large portion of their squad makes up much of the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup winning Spanish side, how does one defend against and attack a team who consist of so many players that can fill multiple roles during a match and who has players in the midfield and backline that are able to score crucial goals frequently? How does one tactically structure a team differently to counter such a side and then maintain that level of consistency for the full 90 minutes? How do you break down a team who seems to play as well in congestion as they do in space?
United may have been deconstructed in possession and control of the game, but definitely not in spirit. A hard fought display against what is arguably the best club football team in the world. In conclusion, whether you’re a fan of Barcelona or just a football fan in general, you can’t argue that in this day and age where so many teams comprise largely of foreign imports, it’s a pleasure to see a team that consists predominantly of domestic players, lift club football’s most celebrated award.