To quote famous American sportscaster Marv Albert, it has come down to this.
After 59 matches and more than 5,000 minutes of football, the last and most important match in Manchester United’s 2010/11 season is little more than 24 hours away.
Any season in which you win the Premier League title, and a record-breaking one at that, is a very good season, but one match stands between this campaign being just very good and it being great.
This current United side might be considered more very good than great alongside those that have come before it, but if they can topple the team considered by most as the world’s best tomorrow night at Wembley, there won’t be any question about the greatness of its accomplishments.
Few and far between are the matches in which you will see Manchester United as an underdog, but that is the case as United face Lionel Messi and Barcelona in a Champions League final chock full of hype.
It wasn’t the case the last time these two met, in the 2009 final in Rome. In that forgettable encounter at the Stadio Olimpico, United went in as reigning European champions and favorites and promptly started brightly, threatening Barcelona’s goal multiple times in the opening 10 minutes. Then, Barcelona struck through Samuel Eto’o with their first substantial move of the match, and United never recovered as Barca went on to win 2-0 and crush United’s hopes of a repeat.
Fast forward to the present, and Barcelona are the world’s best team with the world’s best player and play the most beautiful football on the planet, according to many, and there are more than a few people who utter the words ‘invincible’ and ‘unbeatable’ when speaking of Pep Guardiola’s side.
Whatever your opinion, whether it’s in line with the above, you don’t care for them or the hype that surrounds them, or whatever the case might be, the bare fact is that United are indeed up against it tomorrow.
However, contrary to somewhat popular belief, Barcelona are not invincible, and they are not unbeatable, and it is unwise for anyone to discredit United’s chances to win before a single ball has been kicked.
So how is that this United team, a team that a fair share view as one of the poorer title-winning sides in the Premier League era, can beat mighty Barcelona when the Ronaldo-led United team were overrun two years ago?
A large chunk of the answer lies in the previous sentence. Selling Ronaldo to Real Madrid in a world-record deal after that final defeat in Rome wasn’t exactly addition by subtraction, but Patrice Evra was spot-on when he said last week that United are a better team now than they were with Ronaldo. It might appear a strange thing to say, especially with Ronaldo coming off of a season in which he scored an astounding 40 goals in La Liga and more than 50 in all competitions, but it’s true.
So much has been thrown at United this season, but the unparalleled teamwork and togetherness has seen the team through to this point. Sure, there is a marquee, world-class name in the side in Wayne Rooney, but this season has proven that so many are ready and able to step up when needed, from the fresh-faced Mexican who’s stolen the hearts of United fans worldwide (and many a neutral, it seems) to the veteran Welshman who continues to keep Father Time at bay, from the Portuguese playmaker who’s made a huge leap this season to Park, who lives for matches like the one that lies ahead.
Barcelona’s stars need no introduction. There’s no secret how talented Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Pedro, and the team as a whole are. We’ve seen what they’re capable of on any given day.
But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Look at what United have been up against this season, in terms of injuries, in terms of the bumps they’ve encountered, in terms of controversies and adversity, and how they’ve passed every test thus far to reach this point. Sure, this is the biggest test of the season by far, but don’t think for a second that United will be lacking in preparedness, in readiness, and in belief.
And if there’s an opportunity to learn from the past, here it is. When Barcelona struck first in Rome, there were 80 minutes left, but the game was over from that point, because United didn’t know how to react and recover. Momentum changed, confidence was irreparably broken, the wind was completely knocked out of United’s sails. Overall, the last 80 minutes bordered on nightmarish, and one can only imagine the devastation in the dressing room afterward.
Many of those who were in the starting lineup for United in that defeat will be in the starting lineup tomorrow, and if Fergie’s comments are any indication, you can be sure that they’ll be spurred on to ensure that a repeat of Rome doesn’t happen.
Of course, it will take far more than belief and togetherness to take down Barcelona. It can already be conceded that they’ll have a higher percentage of possession, but United must minimize how much Barca are able to make the most of that statistical advantage and maximize our own opportunities. United have had their struggles defensively this season, but there isn’t any margin for error for such in this situation, and that also goes for the opposite end. United can’t be afraid to create opportunities, because as they showed in Rome, all it takes is one chance to turn a game on its head. At the same time, opportunities don’t need to be created at the risk of allowing Barcelona to hit back on the counter or take back possession for another elongated spell.
Another key for United is something I’ve made mention of to in previous comments. When Arsenal came back from a goal down in their 2-1 win in the first leg of their round of 16 tie against Barcelona back in February, one key was their fearlessness about being physical, about battling for the ball, being physical within reason to put Barcelona under pressure and prevent them from completely controlling proceedings like they do with most. United need to set the tone and do that early on to show that they’re there to play, not to sit back and be awestruck spectators.
Also, there’s something to be said for the fact that, despite the match being in England, there’s not nearly the kind of pressure on United as there was two years ago, when we went to Rome with so much expected, so much at stake. On the other hand, despite Barcelona’s attempts to downplay their role as undisputed favorites, the predictions, the odds, and opinions say otherwise, and the pressure is on them to perform, to live up to all of the lofty expectations that have been set.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t any pressure on United, because United’s stature makes for automatic pressure, irrespective of the scope of the match. But the same weight of expectation is not there, and not having that can translate into a performance of a lifetime, and the doubts that so many have about United’s ability to not only go toe-to-toe with Barcelona, but to beat Barcelona, can be turned into motivation, that extra flame that drives United to perform above and beyond anyone’s expectations and win.
This is normally the part where I’d insert a prediction, but there won’t be one. Instead, I’ll close with five simple words, and you can make of it what you will: Champions aren’t crowned on paper.