Barcelona’s players will saunter into London next week expected to overpower Manchester United with another display of attacking prowess in a Champions League final.
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It’s just two years since United was comprehensively beaten in club football’s biggest match, dealing manager Alex Ferguson a major setback.
And while Barcelona has swept to a third consecutive Spanish title and become a more potent force since then – despite failing to reach last year’s final – United has just secured the Premier League trophy in the face of frequent questioning of the team’s credentials.
”Maybe it’s because we’ve haven’t played flamboyantly,” United midfielder Ryan Giggs told the BBC. ”But it doesn’t bother us. It’s just something we’ve had to put up with.”
Giggs can rightly point to United winning a record 19th English league title last weekend. And that was achieved without either Cristiano Ronaldo or Carlos Tevez, who left after No. 18 in 2009, and with Wayne Rooney struggling in front of goal.
”Players have changed but responsibilities have been shared out and everyone’s assumed a more important role in the team,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said of United.
Ferguson hasn’t been able to rely on Rooney for goals: with just 15 to his name compared to 34 last season.
But the signing of Mexico striker Javier Hernandez in the offseason proved to be an astute move: he has already scored 19 goals in his first season for United.
Even Barcelona’s mesmerizing forward Lionel Messi, who has scored 52 goals this season, is impressed.
”Hernandez could fit us – he speaks Spanish and has a great style,” Messi said. ”It is difficult to predict what he does in a fight next and that’s what we see as a strength of our team.”
A second Champions League final win in three years would confirm Messi’s Barcelona as one of the greatest teams of all time.
”We will go there looking to play as we know best: holding possession, trying to create occasions and cutting their own strengths,” Iniesta said. ”I don’t think (United) have come up against a league opponent that dominates them with possession this year.”
But few doubt the resoluteness of United’s back four or the enduring agility of 40-year-old goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who will retire after next Saturday’s final at Wembley Stadium.
The issue is whether the Red Devils will be able to break through the Iniesta-Xavi dominated midfield that proved to be such an impenetrable barrier in the 2009 final when Pep Guardiola’s side emerged 2-0 winners.
”Everyone is saying we are playing a fantastic team in Barcelona, which we are,” Ferguson said. ”But you cannot write us off. You can never write Manchester United off.”
Just recall the manner in which Ferguson’s United won the Champions League for the first time in 1999 – in Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium. Trailing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the 90th minute, United scored twice in stoppage time to win 2-1.
What troubles Ferguson is that he has only managed to win the competition twice at United, with the last victory coming in 2008 against English rival Chelsea.
Now he takes the team south to Wembley – the scene of United’s first European triumph in 1968 under Matt Busby.
”We should have done better than our record as it stands at the moment,” Ferguson said. ”The idea is to find a solution to Barcelona and add another one.”
Barcelona, though, has also underachieved on the continent with its three titles eclipsed by Real Madrid’s record haul of nine.
And Wembley was also the stage for its first success, which only came in 1992 when Guardiola was still playing. The second came 14 years later against Arsenal before they overpowered United in 2009.
Since then, Barcelona has only got stronger.
”Our team is complete in all senses,” Iniesta said. ”The secret of this team is that we’re tried to learn and improve every year.”
But with plaudits ringing in their earlier, the Barcelona players cannot afford to be complacent.
”In 1992 we thought that we would never play a European Cup final again – I want my players to feel the same,” Guardiola said. ”We cannot waste this opportunity. We are so lucky to be in a final. We have to be conscious of the fact that although we have played two finals in the last three years, we could go another 20 years without making it to another.
”The older players in the squad can remember what it’s like to go four or five years without winning anything.”
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarrisUK
AP Sports Writer Paul Logothetis in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.