Champions League Final preview
It's Barcelona's title to lose Saturday night as the Champions League winner will be crowned at Wembley Stadium (live on FOX, 2 p.m. ET).
The Spanish champion takes on the record-setting Red Devils of Manchester United in a clash that promises wide-open action, dynamic head-to-head matchups - and what most people feel is an inevitable result.
Boasting eight men who helped Spain hoist the 2010 World Cup, Barcelona may be the best team of this era. Enviable passers, brilliant tacticians and blessed with the genius of Lionel Messi, Barcelona has only lost one game in European play this season. That it was to Arsenal, in London no less, means it's not seen as a harbinger.
With the attacking quintet of Andres Iniesta, Messi, Xavi, Pedro and David Villa, Barcelona is able to run and probe its opponents to death, pulling defenders away from goal by virtue of their slick dribbling skills and amazing speed with the ball. Messi, just 23 years of age, is particularly adept at this game, boasting improvisational skills that have already earned him a place in the sport's pantheon of all-time greats.
Playing a blitzing 4-3-3 that uses the width created by right-back Dani Alves to create space down the gut, Barcelona is a terrifying team going forward, with any man able to put the ball on frame at any time.
The style, the famed "tiki taka," was developed by Johan Cruyff in the 1980s as an extension of Holland’s "total football." Placing a premium on short passes, high-tempo movement and the creation of passing lanes by running off the ball, Barcelona use the system to control possession and wear down resistance.
On offense, Barcelona pushes with width; on defense, it comes at teams in diagonal waves that smother attempts to break on the counter-attack. It is remarkably effective, and it has led the Catalans to three straight La Liga titles and its second Champions League final in just three seasons.
Barcelona's last Champions League final is, in fact, a night Manchester United would rather forget. In 2009, United was taken apart by Barcelona in Rome in a surprisingly meek showing for which it will seek some revenge. But the order is far taller for a United team that comes into what should be home field advantage as decided underdogs.
No one doubts this team’s drive or talent. It has the breakout star of the season in Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez; a fine creative swashbuckler in withdrawn forward Wayne Rooney; and one of the best defenses with Edwin Van der Sar backstopping Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
But what it also has is off-the-field issues that threaten to derail the club. The team was hit Monday by a nasty privacy scandal involving star midfielder Ryan Giggs. Going far beyond your average player-behaving-badly tale, this scandal threatens to have profound implications for Britain’s media and legal system and has been the focus of withering attention.
If anyone can get it past this, it would be manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a tactical genius rightly credited as the best man-manager in the game. He has not covered himself in glory this week with his ham-fisted handling of the Giggs imbroglio, but he will have his players ready to face what is surely their toughest test of his season.
The key battles will be fought in midfield, where Giggs and Michael Carrick, running off Park Ji-sung and Rooney, will have to contain the cutting passes of Xavi and Iniesta, while trying to throttle Messi. United is likely to show its "European" formation, a 4-5-1 that can slide easily into a modified 4-3-3 to put pressure high up the field on Barcelona’s one weak spot: keeper Victor Valdes.
It’s a tall order, but Park could well be the X-factor in the match. An incredible big game player, the South Korean has made a habit of scoring goals at the right time. In 2009, it was his goal against Arsenal that took United to Rome; this year he killed off Chelsea in the quarterfinals with an immediate response to ice its berth in the semis.
United has a bit of history behind it, however. It was at Wembley in 1968 that the club won its first European Cup, with Sir Matt Busby's “babes” taking apart Eusebio’s Benfica 4-1. That team, boasting greats George Best, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, played what at the time was a ground-breaking 4-3-3, and Ferguson’s team today carries more than an echo of that championship side.
While few think United can spring the surprise, there are 19 men who will argue the point strenuously. Say what you want, but Ferguson has every member of his team believing it can win any game at any time. Under the hot lights of Wembley on Saturday night, his boys will surely think it can channel Saint George.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.