There's more at stake than the most prized trophy in club sports when Manchester United meets Barcelona in the Champions League final on Saturday at London's Wembley Stadium. A victory by the Catalans would mark their third European title in six years (Bar√ßa has also locked up its third straight Spanish title) and bolster the case that this squad—with the world's best player, Lionel Messi, and seven members of Spain's World Cup winners—might be the greatest team ever. Standing in the way is the Premier League champion, which the Blaugrana defeated 2--0 in the final in Rome two years ago. Since then Bar√ßa has been practically unstoppable. What should United's game plan be?
Meet them as equals ... Some think the best way to play Barcelona is with its own game: Press the Catalans deep in their end and deploy a high defensive back line, as Arsenal did in a 2--1 win in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. But the strategy is risky; any mistake exposes the defense to Barcelona's superb passing and movement, and the result can be humiliating. Real Madrid used a high line and was eviscerated in a 5--0 loss to Bar√ßa in November.
... or park the bus Far safer (and more common) is to sit very deep and narrow against Barcelona and hope to score on the counterattack. While derided for its negativity, this strategy can stifle the flair and intricate passing of Messi and midfielders Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, as Real did in its 1--0 victory in the Copa del Rey final in April. But it's far from foolproof. Bar√ßa's wide forwards David Villa and Pedro like to cut inside to exploit the space available on the diagonal, supported by overlapping, attacking runs from Bar√ßa's fullbacks, especially Dani Alves, who assists on more goals than any other defender in Europe.
Break Bar√ßa's defensive line With its fullbacks pushing up, Barcelona relies heavily on high pressing by center backs Gerard Piqué and Carles Puyol and midfielder Sergio Busquets. The Blaugrana can thus be exposed by pace, in particular by long diagonal passes into the gaps. United will look to midfielder Ryan Giggs and forward Wayne Rooney (who often drops into a deeper-lying role) to release predatory striker Javier Hernàndez and speedy winger Nani (or Antonio Valencia) into those spaces. The problem is, Bar√ßa presses and keeps possession so well that opponents rarely get the chance to play such passes.
Win the set pieces Seven Barcelona players are 5'10" or under. That means the Catalans can be outjumped on crosses and corners. United's Nemanja Vidic, a towering threat in the air, will look to capitalize. That should make a game of it, but... .
PREDICTION Barcelona 2, Manchester United 1.
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Coach Bob Bradley's 23-man squad for the Gold Cup reveals just how shallow the U.S. striker pool is: Of the three forwards named, Jozy Altidore has scored two league goals in his last two seasons in Europe, Juan Agudelo has played a mere 11 pro games, and Chris Wondolowski has all of one cap. That's scary, considering that archrival Mexico has one of the world's rising stars in 22-year-old forward Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez, who walked into the Manchester United lineup this season and scored 13 goals in the Premier League and four more in the Champions League. If, as expected, the U.S. and El Tri meet in the Rose Bowl on June 25 for their third straight Gold Cup final, stopping the Little Pea will be Bradley's biggest headache.
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SHORT WORK Messi (left) & Co. hold most of the advantages, but the towering Vidic (below) bolsters United.
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