Friday, May 27, 2011

The Grand Final

Saturday sees Wembley takes centre-stage for the "biggest show on Earth" as football titans Barcelona and Man Utd clash in the Champions League (CL) final. So much has been written on this final, from Barcelona's fantastic football to Man Utd's rigid defence. All angles are being covered in the media with the aim to predict the outcome of the match. Even the Wall Street Journal is having its say on what makes Barca the super team they are.

There won't be a recommendation from me because this game could turn into anything. At current odds, Barcelona is too short. On the other hand, who would be brave enough to say that a Man Utd win is a certainty? However spectacular these 2 teams are, there isn't even a certainty that the football that will be played will be of great quality. A final with such high stakes can transform the greatest offensive team into a defensive giant.

What is certain is that Barcelona is the best team in the world going into this game. They play the best football, they have the best players, and they have someone called Lionel Messi. But in a final played in 90 minutes, extra time and penalities, they are beatable, just like Real Madrid beat them in the Copa del Rey. They are not invincible. 

I've repeated many times that Man Utd have over-achieved this year, and they will have to over-achieve even more to have a chance to win the final. They have something intangible that Barcelona maybe don't have (or more appropriately, haven't needed to have); a fighting never-say-die spirit, inherited from their manager, that always gives them a chance even when they seem to be after a losing cause. Think the CL 99 League final against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp!

Two years ago, Barca beat Man Utd 2-0 in the final at Rome. Most observers agree that on the match overall, this was the right result. The better part of the observers have also noted that Man Utd dominated the match in the first 10 minutes and had 2 great chances to score, before Samuel Eto'o turned the match on its head with a brilliant goal. I am not saying that Man Utd would have won if they had scored first in the first 10 minutes, but it is certain that the match would have been different than the 1-sided proposition we saw after that first goal.

So can Man Utd do something this time? I believe they can. Historically, their manager Ferguson has relished being the final underdog. His Aberdeen side beat mighty Real Madrid in the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup final. His Man Utd team won its first European trophy under his helm by beating heavily-favored Barcelona in the 1991 version. It will be a matter of how he comes up with the tactics again to stifle a potent opponent. Which brings me to a momentous but yet not-too-much-talked point of this final; where is Barcelona's weak point, if there's any? For me it's the central defense, notably the Pique-Puyol axis.

Let there be no misinterpretation, Pique and Puyol form a solid defence, almost but not quite as stingy as the Ferdinand-Vidic pairing. Barca's football means that everything starts from Pique to its ever-mobile midfielders. The classy defender has been likened to Beckenbauer for his very stylish and mobile style. The fact that Barcelona have 70% of ball possession in their matches means that their defence is rarely ever subject to constant testing. Real Madrid has shown in a few of the El Clasico encounters that they can be stretched and exposed and the Ronaldo goal that settled the Copa del Rey was a case where the defenders were all at sea. I believe Alex Ferguson will have witnessed that and this is an area where Chicharito's speed and intelligence can cause serious damage.

In another twist of fate, it was Ferguson who let go of Pique to his native Barcelona because of the surge of Johnny Evans in the reserve ranks. A seemingly innocuous deal that in hindsight, has transformed the Catalans into a powerhouse and changed the football world. On Saturday, the Man Utd coach will be aiming his strikers to do his rare "bad" decision some justice and beat his former pupil.

My hope for this final is that the Pedro's, Busquet's and Alves' keep their playacting on the side so that the referee-ing does not have any impact on the result. I've recommended both teams many times in this CL campaign and they have done all my recommendations justice. I believe this game will be decided out of a brilliant play somewhere. If it's decided on penalties, so be it, that's part of football.

This is a final and I'm going to have a punt regardless of whether it's safe or not. I will go lightweight for Man Utd +0.5 +1.0 on the Asian Handicap. Not a recommendation; just that I think the stars are aligned for them to win it in the end. Van der Sar's last game will have him pumped up. Ji-Sung Park, the da Silvas, Valencia, Chicharito, Berbatov, etc for a first CL medal. I wouldn't mind that outcome. Come on Man Utd!

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