Tomorrow evening at Wembley, in front of what will probably be described as “a world-wide television audience of seventeen billion people”, Manchester United play Barcelona in the final of the 2011 UEFA Champions League at Wembley Stadium. It is, one could be forgiven for thinking, the final that would have topped the governing body’s wish list at the start of the season. It is, however, also something quite different to that. This match is a clash of cultures, a coming together of shared histories and, possibly most curiously of all, a juxtaposition of two perceptions of teams that couldn’t be much more different to what it is.
A swift look at the top of the Spanish league tables confirms what was surely a certainty from the very start of the season. Barcelona ended the season as the champions of Spain, with thirty wins from thirty-eight matches and ninety-six points. Yet, although they won the league with a degree of comfort, the gap between themselves and second placed Real Madrid was just four points. Their style of play, their sense of élan and grace, has earned them almost unprecedented plaudits in the press. They are talked of in some quarters as being possibly the greatest team in the entire history of European club football. The league table, however, suggests that it might not necessarily be quite that clear cut.
In England, meanwhile, Manchester United could only earn eighty points from their thirty-eight matches, but their margin of victory was an extremely comfortable nine points. Second placed Chelsea and third placed Manchester City each lost nine games in the league this season, and fourth placed Arsenal lost eight. There are underlying reasons why the English Premier League may be slightly more egalitarian than La Liga this season, but Manchester United’s achievement was not insignificant. A couple of hiccoughs aside, they kept winning and winning, yet they have been regarded in some circles as being “lucky” champions, who won the title by default because the opposition were “even worse” than they were.
This, however, is an argument riddled with holes. Quite aside from the fact that a team can only beat the teams put in front of it, there has been an imperiousness about Manchester United that has been almost overlooked – some might even argue that it has been wilfully ignored – this season. One could, of course, argue that the real majesty of Barcelona can be seen in the thirty-eight point gap between them and fifth-placed Sevilla, but this seems as much a reflection upon La Liga being even more financially unbalanced than the English Premier League as anything else. In the Champions League this season, meanwhile, both teams have seldom looked particularly troubled when it really mattered, Barcelona’s first leg wobble against Arsenal arguably excepted.
None of this is to say that there isn’t an almost irresistable aura surrounding Barcelona. Even if we consider all of the other players to be equals, give or take, the Argentinian elephant in the room remains. With fifty-two goals this season, one could suggest to Alex Ferguson that his best policy for dealing with Lionel Messi would be to amputate his legs at the hip, were it not for the fact that he would probably merely continue to brachiate around the pitch and would still find a way of scoring, somehow. The extent to which he is a phenomenon, put simply, cannot be understated. The question is that of whether Manchester United’s defence can contain him.
Some may point to the London venue as giving Manchester United a degree of home advantage, but United’s record at the new Wembley of five wins and four defeats indicates a patchier history there in recent years than we might expect. On the whole, though, it seems feintly absurd to try and draw historical analogies of this sort. Wondering whether Manchester United’s 4-1 win at Wembley against Benfica or Barcelona’s 1-0 win there against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final may or may not be omens for what will happen tomorrow is a cul-de-sac, and any parallels that are retrospectively drawn between tomorrow’s match and either of those two matches are likely to be little more than coincidences.
Ultimately, it may be the pressing that swings it for Barcelona. In order to beat them, you have to get the ball from them and successive post-match statistics over the course of the season have confirmed that this is exceptionally difficult to do. If Manchester United can profit from set-pieces, though, then the bookmakers odds – which show Barcelona as reasonably clear favourites at around even money – could yet be upset. It seems facile to automatically write Manchester United off, but the luxuriant quality of Barcelona’s attacking options has sucked many in. This is a match that perhaps isn’t quite to close to call, but Barcelona haven’t quite won anything just yet.
For those of us that are not concerned which of this two behemoths of the club game wins this match, perhaps it will be plenty enough just to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. And perhaps the point of this particular article – and you won’t find many fuzzier predictions online than the 800-odd words that you have just read – is that tomorrow night is an evening to cast off the cynicism and just sit back to enjoy the match. This is the final act of the season, and it hasn’t been written yet. Bad clubs can play out great matches and great clubs can play out bad matches, but the odds on a great match are narrowed with the two best clubs in Europe are playing each other. And that, as neutrals, is probably the best that we can hope for tomorrow night.
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