Nearly every preview I've seen thus far on Saturday's Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona (1:45pm Central time on Fox) has focused on what, if anything, Man U can do to stop the mighty Barcelona offense. There is no doubt that Barcelona's strength going forward is immense, and that they're one of the greatest teams ever, but this outlook highlights one of the team's biggest strengths: getting the opposition so worried about stopping them that they forget about much other than defense.
See the first leg of the semi-final against Real Madrid: Jose Mourinho's side set out to do one thing -- stop Barcelona from playing. They offered nothing going forward and were intent on merely fouling and kicking Barca's offensive threats. That collapsed when Pepe got sent off and Barca eventually passed their way through to the goal.
Yes, Barcelona are excellent, and will pick you apart if you give them the opportunity. But too many teams set out the defensive stall and lure Barcelona on to them, hoping to soak up the pressure then maybe score on a breakaway at the other end (or, in this case, push the match out through extra time to penalties), completely giving up on trying to cause Barcelona any problems of their own to deal with.
It's not an unreasonable strategy when you're dealing with a team that you can count on to make some mistakes and give you some chances, but Barcelona isn't that team. Barcelona passes the ball too well and will wear out any team through dominant possession and constant ball movement. For Man U, it's also a big risk that it will cause Wayne Rooney (as he's done before) to drop far back into midfield and defense where he's not much of a threat.
Besides suiting Barcelona's possession-based game, this type of defensive strategy plays into their hands by relieving pressure of of their own defenders, the one possible chink in their armor. Dani Alves is a full-back in name only, and his constant forward runs leave acres of open space behind him. Gerard Pique has some issues at times dealing with high balls into the box -- which is one of the reasons Man U manager Alex Ferguson let him leave the club a few years back -- while Carles Puyol may have to play out of position to cover injuries. Meanwhile, just in front of the back four, Sergio Busquets has been susceptible to pressing high up the pitch.
Barcelona's Pep Guardiola is a savvy young manager, but I refer to something my dad used to say after one of my childhood schemes had inevitably failed: old age and treachery wins out over youthful exuberance every time. Fergie will certainly have learned his lessons from the 2009 final against Barca, but also knows his team has to offer something going forward and pick out Barcelona's weaknesses.
Not cowing to Barcelona's greatness before the match is key for Man U, but it's not a problem I see Fergie having. A second key is also for Wayne Rooney to make a big impact. Rooney can have a tendency to drop deep into midfield or defense to try and pick up the ball, and that would further help Barcelona by keeping him in an area of the field where he can't cause much damage. He's got to be front and center, running at Barcelona's defense, causing them problems and creating gaps for Chicharito.
This Man U team is deceptive. It's the best worst team you've ever seen. They haven't looked all that impressive this season, but they've gotten things done when they've needed to, picked up the English league title and are in the Champions League final. The easy prediction is 2-0 to Barcelona, and there is a good chance they won't let you down. But I don't think this game will be nearly as easy for Barca as many people think, and wouldn't be surprised to see Fergie's guile bring the trophy to Manchester.