Friday, May 13, 2011

Conflicted--A Champions League Preview

The stage has been set, and FCB and MUFC will play on May 28th in the 2011 Champions League Final. MUFC breezed through the semis, sending out a Carling cup side in the second leg to crush Schalke 4-1 on the night, while FCB survived four El Clasicos in 18 days to prevail 3-1 on aggregate, in a tie complete with playacting, moments of brilliance, red cards and conspiracy theories. Both teams won their first European Cups at the old Wembley (MUFC in ’68 and FCB in ’92); both teams have been at the forefront of domestic and continental competitions over the last 10 years; and both teams met in the final two years ago.

In 2009, I went off the grid and waited to watch the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United on replay. After work and coaching a local girls high school team, I settled down at my favorite pub and watched as FCB connected five passes backwards to Valdes, who kicked the ball into touch. The match started weirdly for FCB and for me, and, while it got better for the Blaugrana, it never improved for me.

I didn’t know who I wanted to win the game, in a match that went back and forth, United have a couple of early chances. But then E’too popped up and clipped the ball over Van de Sar, and suddenly it was 1-0 FCB. Usually when Barca score I’m pounding the table, internally screaming my head off, yet at that moment I was conflicted. Manchester United were going after back to back League and European Doubles, which would have been an amazing achievement, while FCB were going for a historic treble under first year coach and former player Pep Guardiola. I follow both teams, with United being my first love, and Barcelona being my current girlfriend, and Juventus, the chick I call up in the middle of the night.

Two years ago, Ferguson got it all wrong, marooning Rooney on the left where he never got involved and sticking Ronaldo up top where he was not quite as dangerous. The midfield never came to grips with the game and the defense could only hold out for so long. However, I think United are in a better position to win this time around. They are more organized, Rooney has found a position behind the striker and Valencia and Nani are quite the tandem on the outside. This team does not blind you with their star power, but as a unit they are quite good and squeeze the most out of the individual parts.

FCB swept all before them in 2009, dominating MUFC on their way to a historic treble. Some of the players have changed, especially in attack (Villa and Pedro), and this time they should have a first choice defense as opposed to Rome where it was held together with tape and string. The blaugrana probably peaked just before the New Year and are not hitting the heights of earlier this season. Their possession is still quite impressive, but they have been lacking in finishing and have had defensive frailties exposed to a certain extent.

Now two years on, I am faced with the same quandary. United have ground out results on all fronts and are on the cusp of an amazing return. They are not super sexy with CR7 running around or Rooney and Tevez buzzing around creating havoc. Barcelona, in the meantime, could add to their legacy, winning a second European Cup in 3 years to go along with three league titles in a row. If they win at Wembley, it would be 6 major trophies (League, Cup, Continental) out of 9, plus two Spanish Super Cups, a European Super Cup, and a World Club Cup.

The game is still a couple of weeks away, and it will be hard to watch it as a neutral. Right now I’m leaning towards FCB, only because I want history to remember this team. Next year they will challenge the Dream Team for four titles in a row, and if they have a second Champions League to go with four straight semi-final appearances, they may go down as the best Barcelona side ever. United’s run has already been undermined. Weak league, a lame defeat to City in the FA Cup and a less than impressive run to the Final (Marseille—blech; Chelsea—underperformed; Schalke—crapped the bed)

This pinnacle of club football should be an enthralling afternoon, but already it feels muted. Part of that comes from what Soccernomics would call being a polygamous fan. Gone are the days when it was one fan, one club for life. Here I am “devoted” to several teams, my emotions and time splintered instead of deeply rooted in one team. Maybe by gameday I will have to come to some sort of peace about the game. If not, I’ll just have a couple of pints and hope there is a footballing spectacle on show.

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