Breakdown of Barcelona vs. Man United player matchups
Both teams are rock solid in the back line with superb center back partnerships
Barcelona has the edge in central midfield with Xavi and Andres Iniesta
The play of United's flank players Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia will be crucial
On the eve of the Champions League final, here's how Barcelona and Manchester United's projected starting lineups stack up against each other:
Victor Valdes (Barcelona), Edwin van der Sar (Man United)
Valdes has been an unsung hero for Barcelona this season, not only for his superb ability at one-on-ones, but his speed of thought and distribution in setting up attacks. He has just won Spain's Zamora award for the best goalkeeper, his fourth, and his record of 16 goals conceded in 32 games has been bettered only once in La Liga (by Deportivo's Liano in 1993-94). Valdes is unlucky not to be Spain's number one, which is only because current pick Iker Casillas is also captain.
Van der Sar, on the other hand, is a force of nature. At 40 years and eight months, he's the oldest Champions League finalist but remains on top of his game. At Ajax, Johan Cruyff said he was "one of our best attackers" while Joop Hiele, his former coach, told the Financial Times that: "Goalkeeping is registering the situation, recognizing it and finding the solution. The more often you do it, the easier it gets." One of his United teammates is convinced he can play at the top level for another two years, which says it all.
Edge: Van der Sar
Dani Alves (Barcelona), Fabio da Silva (Man United)
Two Brazilians who represent the modern style of attacking fullback, Dani Alves cost Barcelona £28 million ($46M), more than Ronaldinho, and in his first season, was part of the all-conquering sextuple-winning side. Since then his consistency and energy has dominated Barcelona's right flank, and only Lionel Messi has set up more goals for the team this season. His offensiveness comes at a price, though: he often leaves gaps behind him and Barcelona are vulnerable to counterattacks in those spaces.
Fabio has replaced his twin brother Rafael as United's first-choice right back, and has already impressed with his pace and tactical discipline.
Coach Sir Alex Ferguson still can't tell the twins apart: especially now that Rafael, who was unmarried when he arrived in Manchester, is now married and wears a wedding ring like his brother.
Carles Puyol (Barcelona), Nemanja Vidic (Man United)
The two team captains are the hard men, the warriors, of their sides. Puyol is something of an anomaly in the team hailed as one of the best ever: he was almost sold to Malaga in 1998 but has since allied his exceptional athleticism (he regularly tops the club tests in strength, jumping and reaction times) with his never-say-die attitude. He is also versatile, and has filled in at left back at times this season. "The players around me, they are the superstars," Puyol once said to reporters. "But I work harder. I'm like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does OK in the end." Vidic is arguably more important to United: its player of the year this season, he, like Puyol, is the defender who puts his head where others fear to put their boot. He is also an attacking threat at set pieces, but there are question marks when strikers take him on at pace.
Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Rio Ferdinand (Man United)
Here are the artisan defenders, those with poise, style and grace; they complement their partners perfectly, and are more in tune with their team's style of soccer. For Pique, this has been an astonishing few years: since winning the World Cup last summer, Franz Beckenbauer called him "the best defender in the world" and the Catalan press nicknamed him Piquenbauer. He had spent four years -- aged 16 to 20 -- at United but felt his chances of breaking the Vidic-Ferdinand partnership would be tough. It was a good decision: he has won nine trophies with Barcelona and is fast-becoming another talisman for the club. The downside? He has occasional lapses of concentration and can be physically harried into errors.
Ferdinand has missed much of this season because of injury, but has timed his return as well as one of his elegant tackles: perfectly. He has mobility and speed that Vidic lacks, and will need all his anticipation skills when confronted with Barcelona's attacking threat.
Eric Abidal (Barcelona), Patrice Evra (Man United)
Abidal's possible involvement at Wembley is nothing short of a miracle, given that in March, he was diagnosed with a liver tumor and his life, let alone his career, was in danger. Just under seven weeks later, he was back on the pitch, and after a two-minute appearance against Real Madrid, was given "the bumps" to mark his recovery. Before his illness, he was in superb form, and had proved his versatility with some excellent performances at center back too. His selection is the biggest dilemma for coach Pep Guardiola, who is concerned that five appearances combining 204 minutes is not enough for a game of this magnitude.
It has been an eventful season for Evra, who was thrust into first-team action with no preseason after his unforgettable (for the wrong reasons) World Cup. He also came close to leaving United "for family reasons" but a heartfelt plea from coach Ferguson persuaded him to stay. "I have no regrets, this is the club of my heart," said Evra this week to reporters. He is one of the leaders of this team and about to join legends Raymond Kopa and Didier Deschamps as the only Frenchmen to have played in four European Cup finals.
He has only won one of them, in 2008, so far.
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Michael Carrick (Man United)
Outside of Barcelona, Busquets has developed a poor reputation after unseemly "simulations" in recent European semifinals against Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Holland coach Bert van Marwijk recently claimed his overreaction to a foul in the World Cup final's third minute set the tone of the match. That has overshadowed the fact that Busquets is a crucial part of Barcelona's midfield, brilliant at anticipating, intercepting and breaking up the opponents' play, unfussily ensuring possession is kept. He also drops back and plays as a libero when Dani Alves or Abidal are marauding down the flank.
If ever a player will feel he has something to prove against Barcelona, it's Carrick. The central midfielder was singled out by Barcelona before the 2009 final as the main source of supply to the flanks, and he cut a dismal figure as he was constantly harried out of possession and failed to make an impact on the game. That match, in fact, was blamed for his poor season following that, but this year he has been in much better form, and some of his best performances have come in Europe. How he copes against Barcelona, who will certainly use the same tactic on him again, could determine how successful United will be.
Xavi (Barcelona), Ryan Giggs (Man United)
"This kid is going to push me out of the door here," said Pep Guardiola to a teammate when Xavi joined the Barcelona first team for a training session in 1998. Though Xavi struggled early in his career -- constant comparisons to Guardiola did not help -- he is now seen as the integral element in Barcelona and Spain's tiki-taka style of football. He describes himself as a combination of Guardiola and Michael Laudrup, but in fact he's unique: he averages 125 successful passes per game this season (it's only 106 in Europe, but he's still the only player to top 100) and as El Mundo Deportivo put it: "He is gregarious, majestic, an exhibition, his football is a recital that never ends." He was hard done by to come only third in the Fifa/France Football Ballon D'Or awards, but would be far too modest to agree.
Giggs has also enjoyed an astonishing season, albeit one less expected. He has made a seamless move into a central position, where has replaced Paul Scholes, and his intelligent passing is crucial to United's attacking moves.
Ferguson has said that the club's record appearance-maker is in the best form of his career. "As you get older, you lose that speed but balance it out with experience and know-how of playing so many games," Giggs has said. "I do feel I'm having a bigger impact in games than I've ever had."
Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), Wayne Rooney (Man United)
Of course these two occupy different parts of the pitch, but both essentially play as their team's No. 10. Iniesta is Spain's World Cup final-scoring hero, who has been applauded at every stadium this season, and has enjoyed arguably his best ever season for Barcelona -- eight goals for his highest-scoring campaign and, crucially, 49 games in an injury-free season.
"Last year we missed him in the key games [through injury] but this year he has been our signing of the season," said Guardiola, who has publicly wished all his players were as humble and hardworking as Iniesta. As Guardiola's former coach [for Mexican side Doradas Sinaloa] and mentor Juanma Lillo told The Blizzard: "Messi produces the best plays but Iniesta is the best player in the world. He makes his teammates better players."
Rooney, who called Iniesta the world's best player two years ago, has become United's talisman after an eventful campaign, when back in October he rejected a new contract and questioned the club's ambition. Since March, though, he has looked a player reborn, enjoying a more withdrawn role behind Javier Hernandez, and dropping into midfield to add some bite in the absence of Darren Fletcher. His range of passing and freedom in his role makes him tricky to pick up: that will be the job of Busquets, in a clash that won't be for the fainthearted.
David Villa (Barcelona), Park Ji-Sung (Man United)
Villa has kept up his unique record of scoring over 20 goals in each of the last 10 seasons, but in recent months, has looked tired and short of confidence. It has not helped that Villa has scored only one goal in his last 16 appearances: in the same period, Messi has scored 10. "Like everybody else, I'm now starting to get worried about my goal drought as well," Villa said recently to reporters. "But there's not really much I can do except keep working hard." Coach Guardiola continues to back him and United should ignore him at their peril: Villa has the class to make the difference.
Park has become crucial to United in recent weeks and is a proven big-game player: this season, he has scored the winner against Arsenal, and the opening goal in a Man of the Match performance in the title-clinching win over Chelsea. Ferguson dropped Park before the 2008 Champions League final after he helped keep Messi quiet in the semifinal -- calling it "the hardest decision I have ever had to make." His job will be to track the runs of Dani Alves and exploit any spaces left by the Brazilian. "He's got the discipline and intelligence you need in the biggest games," said Ferguson to reporters. "He doesn't watch what other players are doing with the ball, he gets himself into another position so he can be involved again."
Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Javier Hernandez (Man United)
What can you say about Messi, the best player in the world and possibly of all time, that has not been said before? The Champions League top scorer for the last three seasons, his total of 31 league goals has come at a rate of one every 92 minutes while his season stats are a mind-boggling 52 goals and 24 assists in 54 games. These figures are a reflection of his new position as a false No. 9 (his first full season in the role) but it has also come at a price: pessimists have noted that Barcelona are more predictable than previous campaigns, as general fatigue and David Villa's slump in form have led to Messi-dependence. It says something that he cut an unhappy figure after Barcelona celebrated La Liga success last week against Malaga -- because he had been rested for the game and just wants to play. What's easy to forget is that this reluctant superstar is still only 23 and has the determination, and ability, to get even better -- a terrifying prospect.
Hernandez is United's top scorer in Europe (with four goals compared to Messi's 11) and has been its revelation of the season. He expected to play only a handful of games in his first year but has become a crucial element of the team's offensive play, with his movement, pace and positional sense in the box reminiscent of former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He is also more physical than he looks, not afraid to use his shoulders and elbows, and his speed and decent aerial game could trouble Pique. Teammates have marveled at his work ethic (he is first in and last out of training) and has all the attributes to become a top player -- even if Pele might have been a bit generous when he said, "He's so excellent he could be the next Messi."
Pedro (Barcelona), Antonio Valencia (Man United)
Three years ago, Pedro Rodriguez was playing in the third division and Barcelona's technical staff wanted to get sell him on. Guardiola stepped in, and one year later, Pedro ended 2009 as the first player to score in all six competitions that Barcelona won. Since then, Pedro has developed his game, adding a game intelligence to his raw speed, brilliant finishing and shooting quality with either foot. If Villa and Messi are more inclined to play in the center, Pedro hugs the flank and creates width for the team. "If Pedro was Brazilian," Guardiola has said, "he'd be called Pedrinho and we wouldn't be able to afford him."
Since returning from a broken leg last September, Valencia has been in superb form for United, as comfortable staying back as going forward, and his metronomic delivery is a treat for strikers. Former United forward Louis Saha recently commented on the effectiveness of Valencia at United: "It's amazing to have a player like Cristiano Ronaldo in your team, but as he's so special, you never what he's going to do next and that causes problems for a centre-forward. With Valencia, though, it's simple: he will always beat his man and deliver a great cross. For a center forward, having someone like that in your side is a dream." Given that Valencia's opponent may be Abidal, who is short of match practice, Valencia's role could prove a crucial one for United.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.
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