Monday, May 30, 2011

Conflicted but Satisfied--UCL Final review

Going into the game, I felt the following: conflicted (read my preview post); confident that MUFC would score at least one goal; and worried for FCB in regards to the pitch, which tends to play and heavy, and the travel plans, which were changed due to the ashcloud again.

The conflict inside me affected more than I thought it would. After getting all of my housework done, I took a shower and got ready to go to the bar. I had decided to go jersey neutral, so I was then left with a decision of what to wear. I settled on a blue oxford button up, which is crazy because I never, ever dress up, but there I was in a dress shirt and jeans.

In the weeks leading up to the game, a lineup had materialized for United. Chicarito would lead the attack and trouble the backline of the opponent; Rooney would be able to have some space to attack and would help the center mids; Valencia and Park would work the wings in both directions; and the partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic would be rock solid in the middle. The only debates were whether O’Shea or Fabio would start and whether Carrick would keep his spot. Berbatov wasn’t going to start (turns out he didn’t even make the bench), and Nani was a question due to his defensive weaknesses. The lineup that had gotten them this far, including huge wins in the EPL and Champions League against Chelsea would be the team that would face FCB, and was a team that I was sure would score.

The New Wembley has been less than spectacular. The field cuts up and the players look like they are playing in quicksand. I felt the slow surface might be factor, especially if the game became a dog fight. This would hurt MUFC, but at least they would be used to it. As for FCB, while the Nou Camp pitch has hand some issues this season, it is always slick. Travel plans usually don’t factor into game prep, but in this case, it was a key item of analysis. Barcelona travel to away games the day of in the league. Except for a crazy trip to Osasuna earlier in the year, this works for them. For European games they arrive with one day to spare. Due to the ashcloud, they could not fly and wanted to avoid a train ride, so they flew in on Tuesday. Taking a team out of their routine was a concern because Pep is very meticulous in his preparation and execution. Plus he preaches comfort, letting players stay at home for as long as possible, so being cooped up in a hotel for several days had to be a touch unsettling.

After all the hype and potential issues and words written, the game kicked off and it was simply 2009 all over again. United harrying and pressing and making FCB uncomfortable. Valdez quick reactions saved the proverbial bacon and allowed the Blaugrana to finally settle in after about 20 minutes. The absence of Puyol was noticeable, as Mascherano struggled in possession and team shape. From there, tika taka took over, with Messi committing half the United team, passing to Xavi who slipped in Pedro, and he opened the scoring with a composed finish. Vidic and Evra were ball watching and did not react to the danger. One day I want to put together a goal compilation involving Vidic. Seems like every goal scored has him sliding at the last second as the goal keeper is beaten.

United responded quickly and decisively. Amazing interplay led to Giggs finding Rooney and he fired in a shot, which gave VV almost no chance. Game on. Halftime came with FCB in control but frustrated and the Red Devils teetering. Carrick looked lost, never venturing very far from Vidic and Ferdinand. Valencia was almost invisible and balls over the top to the Little Pea were wasted, either because they rolled to the keeper or he was offside. In my halftime phone call to Erik, I said if the second half starts as the first half ended, there can only be one result.

FCB were majestic in the second period. Their intricate possession kept United at arms length and resulted in an exquisite finish from Messi as no one closed him down. Moments before the goal, I told a fan at the bar that FCB had control in the first half but were not dangerous. Stay organized and focused, and if Messi beats you from 25 yards, which he rarely does, you have to live with that. Then he fired the ball in and there was no way back.

Ferguson was forced into a change when Fabio pulled up in jured, and moved Valencia to right back and brought on Nani. The sub made sense; bringing on an attacking player and going for the equalizer. But questions remain why Berbatov was left completely off the team sheet and why Anderson did not come on. Surely Anderson for Carrick would have been better than Scholes. The problem with Nani’s introduction was that Nani’s first touch was a turnover that led to Villa receiving the ball and hitting a shot of such power and accuracy that even Messi fell to his knees in admiration and exultation.

3-1 up with 20 minutes to go, the game slipped away from a United short of ideas, energy and poise. Ferguson learned from two years ago but it didn’t matter. His team simply isn’t good enough. Maybe if Fletcher had played, he could have won the center mid battle; maybe if United could have been rewarded from all of that early pressure; maybe if the team had concentrated during the key moments.

Maybes but no matter. We are in the presence of greatness, the greatness of Pep and Messi and FC Barcelona. After a night’s sleep, I awoke with this thought: this Barca are this generation’s AC Milan. I was too young and unaware to witness the wondrous Rossoneri teams of Sacchi and Capello, who were in charge of Van Basten, Rijkaard, Guillt, Baresi, and Desailly.

From 1987 to 1996, these teams accomplished the following:

*5 Scudetti in nine seasons, with 2 second place finishes, including a 58 game league unbeaten streak

*1 Coppa Italia Runners-Up

*3 European Cup/Champions League titles and 2 more Finals

Now look at the achievements of FC Barcelona from 2005-2011 (Rijkaard/Guardiola):

*5 La Liga titles, including 3 straight La Liga titles, with points totals for the last two in the 90’s.

*1 Copa del Rey title, with a semi in 2010 and a Final appearance this year.

*2 Champions League titles in the last three years, 3 in the last six and in at least the semi-finals the last four years.

What can the Blaugrana accomplish in the next three or four years? In a word, everything. Their team is in their prime, with replacements only needed for Xavi and Puyol, and the youth team continues to generate talent with money available for a big name if needed. The club is poised legendary greatness, and. in the end, I wanted FCB to win because, in 10, 20, 30 years, I want everyone to look back and remember a team that was wonderful to watch, a team that brought joy and excitement to the European stage, a team that deserves a spot in the pantheon of historical giants.

My conflict going into the game was alleviated by the quality and energy of the game. Chances at both ends, a better performance by United, a clinic by the Blaugrana, and dazzling goals from the star players. In the end, the best team won, and seeing Abidal lifting the cup after having a cancerous tumor removed just months ago was an emotional finale to a great match. Bring on next season as FCB try to match four straight league titles of Cruyff’s Dream Team and go for another sextuple.

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