Part 2 of the Champions League Final Preview sees Sleepy and @Santapelota profile Manchester United’s key men. Key strengths and potential weaknesses are discussed in each are of the field, as well as identifying a few of the potential key tactical battles for Saturday’s game.
Read SEA’s seven part Champions League preview here.
Edwin van der Sar: 40 years old and enjoying some of the finest football of his career. Not as agile as Valdes in coming off his line but more adept at reading the game and adjusting his position on the field accordingly. It is no exaggeration to say that he will retire on Saturday as one of the greatest goalkeepers to have played the game, and further, up there with the very best with the ball at his feet and his majestic distribution. He is calm, measured and accurate with the ball, often releasing the fullback with a timely pass ensuring a swift transition up the field, and equally adept at finding the forward players from distance. The Dutchman has no apparent weakness in his game (certainly this season), comfortably dealing with balls in the air, and able to spread his daunting frame with aplomb for shots from short distance.
Fabio Da Silva: patience, professionalism and strength in adversity; these are the key assets this young Brazilian has in abundance. Waiting patiently in the wings whilst his twin brother has enjoyed the lime-light since they were brought to the club, Fabio has been in superlative form in the last 8 games and could well usurp both his brother (with question marks still remaining about match fitness) and the experienced John O’Shea for a seemingly unimaginable starting position at right back. Able to play with either foot comfortably, he is strong in the tackle, quick to release the ball and able to use his natural speed to support the attacks. Will be asked to play a more conservative role and assist the centre-half pairing in their marshalling of Messi. Must be alert to either Pedro’s (or Villa’s) clever movement, often cutting inside on the diagonal, and will have to call on the defensive contributions of Valencia at times. Weaknesses include a tendency to ball watch and a propensity to make the odd rash challenge.
Rio Ferdinand: a defender in the Italian mode, and with the likes of Maldini, Cannavaro and Baresi will go down as one of the all-time great centre backs. Calm and composed right centre-back, playing slightly deeper than his partner Vidic, he has a peerless ability to be able to read the game and repel danger with ease – a remarkable stat being that he has only fouled 5 times this season. Powerful in the air, and with a Beckenbaur-like distribution, Ferdinand’s authoritative displays since his return from a season-threatening injury have been vital to Man United’s success. Could potentially be asked to alternate with his defensive partner Vidic, assisting with the through-marking strategy to contain a Messi in the false 9 role.
Nemanja Vidic: for Pique’s Ferdinand, read Puyol’s Vidic. The team’s captain and the League’s player of the year has had one of his strongest seasons as a United player, starting and ending the season in a particularly sterling manner. Combative and supreme in the air, Vidic’s strengths lie in administering ruthless efficiency as he carries out the archetypal ‘no. 4’ duties to devastating effect. Also a superb reader of the game, he is often able to anticipate the ball to the opposing striker’s feet and get ahead of his man intercepting the pass. Vidic will be a threat from set-pieces, and will seek to take advantage of United’s newly developed corner routine. His distribution still falls short, and can panic when pressed early. Must seek to release out wide as soon as in possession.
Patrice Evra: on his day the best left back in world football, but has endured a rather inconsistent season for his standards. Evra is usually the main out ball for either van der Sar or Vidic and his strength lies in drawing the opposition midfield out of position and linking astutely with both the central midfield pairing and the likes of Park/Nani ahead. His dynamism down the left side is a key asset to the United side and his duel with Alves will be an influential one; though not as assured in his end-product as the Brazilian, Evra is the better defender. Positionally sound, his strengths lie in the ability to intercept high up the field, initiating counter attacks. His wily opportunism in the final third could open up that crucial extra acreage for a teammate in which to capitlise.
Antonio Valencia: a wise punt from Paul Jewell in 2006 has meant a startling progression for the speedy Ecuadorian since coming to the English Premiership; since joining United he has managed to add a tactical acumen to his game that betrays his direct style of play. No longer simply an out and out winger, Valencia has worked tremendously hard on his possession play and defensive discipline, meaning that it is no longer a certainty that his principle aim is to launch straight into the counter attack in a wide right position. He is able to link the play between the midfield and forward lines, and is also adept at coming inside to create space for the overlapping fullback. His crossing ability is superior to Nani’s despite not having the same array of tricks, and his inclusion is a certainty after a scintillating return to the side since his recovery from injury in early 2011. His battle with Puyol may well prove pivotal in the game, especially given the aggressive style of the latter.
Michael Carrick: not quite in the regista category of say a Pirlo or a Xavi, his metronomic passing from the centre of the field has been an essential to both domestic and European success – he holds the greatest win proportion (66%) of any player who has played over 50 games in Europe, and if he performs well on Saturday United have a chance. Overlooked by Capello in last 2 seasons and a target for fans who yearn for the combative midfield types of old, his astute positioning and tactical understanding of game means he can intercept the ball effectively, thus halting the momentum of opposition. His positioning and distribution is similar to Busquets, though Carrick has superior ability with long range passing. It is no surprise that during his worst season at the club in 2009/10, it was the only time in his 5 seasons at the club that United failed to lift the Premiership trophy. A potential weakness in a short-term loss in confidence and Barcelona’s intense pressing game could allow nerves to creep in.
Ryan Giggs: 20 years at the highest level of club football is a remarkable achievement, especially given the quality of the service during this time. Giggs is enjoying a similar late rejuvenation in form to Puyol and has found himself occupying a more central role in recent months – one which is suited to his experience and clever passing. No longer able to dart down the wing with such elegance and prowess, Ferguson has harnessed the Welshman’s positional acumen and his ability to maintain defensive discipline in the centre of the field as well as pass aesthetically when in possession of the ball. His forays out wide will be supplemented by Park’s movement inside, and as per his assist for Rooney at Stamford Bridge, his timely runs in the final third could pay dividends.
Ji-Sung Park: energy and more importantly, his ability to read the game will be crucial; being able to judge the pattern of the game – and the next phase of play – is one thing, being astute and precise in distribution once on the ball is quite another; and Park combines the two qualities with aplomb. His contribution in the big European games in recent years has been superb (out-shining Pirlo et al in the San Siro in 2009 from a central position was a fine example of his quality). Will likely start left, but will be asked to maintain a central position when relieved of possession trying to disrupt the fluency of the midfield combination play between Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi. In tandem with Rooney, Park will be asked to halt the flow of the move at its initiation as Busquets seeks to dictate the tempo from deep. Will need to be extra vigilant of Alves and his fluency and penetration going forward.
Wayne Rooney: has honed his natural ability at the business end of the season and is currently enjoying some of the finest football of his career. Strong, powerful but with a football mind to match, Rooney’s positioning in the Final could be as crucial to the outcome as any other. Able to make things happen on the ball, finding the smallest of caveats in between the midfield and offensive lines, his penetration and his ability to release either Hernandez or link with players out wide is fundamental to the United approach. Given that Busquets will be wary of affording him too much space, thus dropping deeper than usual, Rooney may well only need to work the final third – as opposed to dropping deeper into an auxiliary third central midfielder. His duel with Busquets is an intriguing one, as both will be seeking to deny the other time and space on the ball.
Javier Hernandez: arguably the signing of the season, and yet another gem from Sir Alex in the market. His relationship has blossomed with Rooney since the game at Wigan in February, and the team hasn’t looked back. Electric pace and able to finish with either foot Hernandez rivals the fantastic opportunism of a certain Ruud van Nistelrooy. Having pulled Rooney back into the trequartista role (at times) during the Liverpool game at home when paired with Berbatov, Ferguson’s tactical mind was set into action. With Chicharito’s vertiginous and lucid movement able to pull defenders out of position, it seemed logical to pair him with Rooney; the latter’s ability to find the clever runs, as well as crucially being able to support the attack instantaneously with verve and energy has allowed the partnership to flourish. The youngster must learn to hold his runs with more precision, and his often naïve hold-up play (expected at such an early stage in development) may well be capitlised on by Busquets/Pique.
Nani: United’s player’s player of the year, has suffered a dip in form and consistency since the return of Valencia, but could still be hugely influential as being involved (assist or goal) in over 50 of United’s goals this season will attest. Nani’s strength, and importantly the ability to keep the ball under pressure has improved no end this term – as has his ability to find the right pass. A threat from either wing, his forte has been to come inside and link with the forwards, often leading to a shot on goal. Could well be introduced on the left side to work with Evra; as well as his powerful dribbling and direct running, his ability to provide a neat through ball or shift the ball ever so slightly away from the opponent before crossing will be a major threat to the Barca defence.
Darren Fletcher: could yet feature from the start, but given his long-term absence of late, may be a risk. His combativeness and energy could be used to get in amongst the ball playing maestros of Xavi, Iniesta and of course Messi. Fletcher has grown into an important player in recent years, and his passing skills are undervalued by many. Able to harry and tackle opposition players, but also is quick to release and importantly, find the right pass – short or long. Like Park and Carrick above, a superb reader of the game which allows him to regain possession of the ball. Ferguson will be keen to utilise his experience and qualities at some point in the game, especially if United find themselves ahead. To miss out would be a personal catastrophe for the Scot after missing the 2009 Final through suspension.
Dimitar Berbatov: just missed out on the golden boot but has largely been on the periphery in the last 10 games or so. A slight tactical adjustment from Ferguson this season has seen the Bulgarian leading the line, and goals have been added to his mercurial touch and vision. Still a great asset to the team, and able to influence the game from the bench (he brought some semblance of order upon his introduction two years prior), Berbatov will be hoping seize the moment if given the minutes on the pitch. If United lead, his ability to position himself in order to intercept the ball and keep it could be utilised to great effect.
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