27 May 2011

Born winners, regular guys and great friends will come out on top in Champions League final

This was my Champions League final preview for STV's Sports Blog

Pic: ©Reuters

On Saturday night, we will witness two of Europe’s heavyweights go into battle on the hallowed turf of Wembley, the site of the pair’s maiden European coronations.

As preposterous as it may seem on the face of it, both sides could be also labelled as Europe’s great underachievers, alongside Juventus. Both sides bring to the table proud histories: histories of success, and of sparkling football; commitment to developing their own, and imposing their style.

Manchester United enter this final fresh from knocking Liverpool off their domestic perch; Barcelona having emerged the victor of a gruelling series against a Real Madrid side desperate to make amends for last November’s memorable 5-0 manita at the Camp Nou.

If the plaudits for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have been reserved, qualified even, they are inverse to the unanimity of those bestowed upon the blaugrana. But where there is no divergence is in their eagerness to make up for lost time and write some new history, trailing as they do their principal domestic rivals’ illustrious tallies in the greatest club competition of them all. Bitter foes have been put in their place domestically and now both seek to reel them in here too.

2009’s final may have represented a slap in the face for United, being as it was their first ever defeat in a European final; but Barcelona are no strangers to the pain of defeat on the ultimate stage. It is scarcely believable now that they took the field here at the old Wembley 19 years ago against Sampdoria having never worn the continent’s crown.

The competition had served up a turd on a stick in the final the year before, as a gifted Red Star Belgrade cynically played for penalties en route to victory against Marseille; but as 1992’s final entered the final ten minutes of additional time goalless, nobody could complain of a lack of entertainment.

This was Johann Cruyff’s Dream Team of Hristo Stoichkov, José María Bakero et al with a young Josep Guardiola giving the prompts from midfield. Spoiling tactics simply weren’t part of their vocabulary. Their opponents, with Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini and the flying Atillio Lombardo in their pomp correctly sensed this might be the only chance for Samp, and were keen to seize it.

Nonetheless, as the game edged towards penalties one could sense the Catalans’ growing angst. They had agonisingly lost the ’86 to final to Steaua Bucharest in Seville through that particular lottery, and now the nightmare scenario was looming again.

Those with longer memories cast their minds back the days of Helenio Herrera, and Barça’s great team of that era who had the historical misfortune to coexist with Real during their staggering five-cup European haul. Herrera got the boot for bowing out to the Madrid club at the semi final stage in Europe, and went on to dominate the competition with Inter.

Barcelona’s solitary final in 1961 saw them go trophyless after five goal thriller against Benfica. The hopes and dreams of a nation weighed heavily on the shoulders of the 11 men on the park in London.

With 111 minutes on the clock, they won a free-kick just outside the opposing D. The referee, Aron Schmidhuber, flashed a card as the Sampdoria defence tried to slow things down. The tension amongst both ranks was palpable. Schmidhuber drew on his whistle. Stoichkov and Bakero teed the ball up for Ronald Koeman to blast home. At long last, the wait was over.

It’s possible to speak of a Barcelona before 1992 and after, but one central stand binds both eras and it represented in two figures; Cruyff, the star of the 1970s whose intellectual blueprint imported from Ajax underpins the club’s philosophy to this day, and the man who carries that tradition as he returns to the site of that famous win this weekend, Pep Guardiola.

Through the good times and the bad, that philosophy has been imprinted on the very DNA of the club to the extent where then-president Joan Laporta baulked at the possibility of hiring José Mourinho three summers ago, preferring to promote the untested Guardiola from his post in charge of Barcelona’s B side.

On the field, the team were in turmoil and the last two years of the Frank Rijkaard era had left Real in the ascendent. Having finished third, and 18 points behind a Real team who had hammered them 4-1 before the season ended, the task to turn it around was enormous. Many people questioned whether Guardiola had the credentials to do so.

That seems a very long time ago now.

It is not just that Barcelona have been incredibly successful, though they have. It is not just that they have dished out humiliation upon humiliation on Real, although that helps too. It is not that they won all six available trophies in Guardiola’s first 18 months in charge, but this is a large part of it; victory on Saturday we see him become the clubs most successful coach in its starred history.

Winning is important, and here we have a team of born winners. But is the fact that they been so successful with this unique Barcelona style that brings the greatest satisfaction of all. The players belief in each other and the method is what marks this Barcelona side as being something different, something truly special indeed.

It’s not even about a desire to be remembered as being amongst the greatest of all time, as many outsiders are already keen to label them. All such debate and speculation remains the domain of the press, the blogosphere, and fans. As anyone with the benefit of meeting them will tell you, this is a humble group, with no room for egos. They love each other, and they love winning together. It is this work ethic, this willingness to die for each other, that the club’s sizable contingent brings to most successful national side in Spain’s history.

Born winners, sure; but just regular guys too, and above all great friends. Equally - as anyone in the know will tell you again - any talk of this game carrying extra pressure, as some have claimed, as they seek to cement their place in the pantheon of all-time great sides is wide of the mark. Nobody within the camp is interested in that nonsense. Winning remains the prime objective.

To what degree we can attribute all of this success to Guardiola is the subject of much debate. What should not be up for debate is that there is more to Guardiola than meets the public eye, particularly the Anglophone eye. Polite and erudite, he is also a man of strong will whose first move on taking the reins was to show Ronaldinho and midfield mainstay Deco the door.

Samuel Eto’o, a born winner but equally a prickly and at times difficult presence should have followed suit, but no club was willing to match Barcelona’s modest demands. He put up with Eto’o, who responded with one of his finest seasons there to date as the club swept all. He was still moved unceremoniously on as a makeweight that summer in Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move from Inter.

It is often said that Barcelona lack a plan B, and it was with that in mind that the Swede was purchased, but that’s not exactly true either. If the incessant pressing game is the most noticeable imprint of Pep on an already gifted team, that does a disservice to his keen tactical mind and micro-managing skills. When needed, he has proven adept at tweaking matters to turn the tide in game, and has surprised us on occasion with his line-ups and starting positions. A motivator, intelligent, an idealist; but also a very pragmatic and shrewd observer.

It soon became clear that in coaching terms, Guardiola has the head of a man ten years senior on his shoulders. But then, even in his playing days, his colleagues likened him to a coach on the field. The burning question in every culé’s mind is just for how much longer he will stay, a question he has repeatedly refused to settle and on more than one occasion this season stoked.

To hear those within the club speak of their opponents shows their genuine respect. Xavi, on more than one occasion and all sincerity has spoken of being in awe at Paul Scholes. It’s unlikely now, as the body begins to fail, that Scholes will play any significant part in this final. But the praise and admiration for Ryan Giggs is only fractionally less effusive.

Lionel Messi singled out Wayne Rooney for praise this week saying "Rooney is a huge player, very skillful and very quick. He's a fully rounded player that can create danger at any time". When they speak of 2009, it is not to express sentiments of superiority to United but a gushing delight across the board of having played exceptionally well. At the same time, they also remember just how badly United rattled them before Eto’o struck against the run of play to put them in front.

Likewise, the players were keen to express their delight at facing another team who like to attack after qualifying from the semi-finals, and we shouldn’t see that as the veiled dig at their opponents in that round that some chose to read it as. When asked on Monday what scared him the most about United, Guardiola replied “Everything”. He wasn’t being flippant, either.

So, although the regard for Manchester United is genuine, there is also a sense that they may be a little off the mark, at least stylistically, in their conception. Specifically, it is as if the 2008 semi final between these teams - where Ferguson’s side set-out to strangle the life out of their opponents - never happened. Given the available personnel, such a catenaccio-style lockdown remains unlikely but what is also unlikely is that United will be quite so dazzled as they were in Rome.

Guardiola’s nascent employment of Messi in the false nine role caught them off guard and ensured it was a night to forget for Ferdinand, Carrick and Vidic who were at a loss as how to pick the double World Footballer of the Year up. Whatever they should expect, they should expect that a more defined stratagem will be in place tomorrow.

Many connected with Barcelona will be surprised to have seen Nani fall out of favour of late. From being their best player for vast swathes of the season, the feeling amongst people in Catalonia is that he should be complementing, not supplanted by, another player who they hold in high regard, the fit-again Antonio Valencia. United will not go out to spoil, that is for sure, but there is a disconnect in the minds of many aficionados here between their image of Manchester United and the sort of Manchester United we are likely to see in the final.

Much has been made of the disruption to Barcelona’s travel plans brought about by fears of a repeat of last season, when volcanic ash meant they had to make a grueling two day journey to Milan to take on Inter in a first leg that effectively sealed the tie. Not that anyone connected to the club ever sought to use that as an excuse. But this week, Xavi accepted that it had not been ideal and the club moved swiftly this time to avoid any complications.

There two ways of looking at this. Under Guardiola, Barcelona have made a point of traveling to away games at the latest possible time. Domestically, this means they fly off to away days the same day, which is not a problem given the amount of 8pm, 9pm and 10pm kick-offs in La Liga.

Sometimes, this caused problems of course; during the Spanish air-traffic controllers strike they arrived on the pitch at Osasuna a minute after the already delayed kick-off time. Guardiola has firm beliefs as to the benefits of this approach, however. He wants his players to be as comfortable as possible, and sees this as another tool towards maximising advantage. As meticulous as he is, the idea of an Italian style retiro, where the players are hauled off and holed up in a hotel two nights before games would be anathema.

So will these extra days spent in London be an advantage of a disadvantage? One school of thought holds that this will, in fact, have upset their routine and may take the players from their familiar comfort zone. Another holds that moving so decisively and swiftly to defuse the chances of anything going wrong was the right move, and that at any rate finals must involve a degree of upheaval inconsistent with their league-style preparations.

This writer’s thoughts are firmly in line with the latter. Besides, anyone following the photographed Twitter antics of Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué at the Emirates yesterday would struggle to argue that these guys aren’t having fun.

On the field, the forward and midfield lines pick themselves. Question marks remain over the defensive configuration. It is a joy to see Eric Abidal back in action so soon after what initially was feared to be a potentially career-ending tumour. During Puyol’s long absences and Piqué’s erratic mid-season form, the Frenchman was a colossus, enjoying comfortably his best season at the club since moving from Lyon.

But doubts remain as to whether he’ll start. The consensus is that Mascherano will partner Piqué in the centre, with Puyol playing left back as he did in Rome two years ago. Sergio Busquets of course is more than capable of playing in the backline, but his centrality to the team and superior use of the ball means he is needed to play the anchoring role.

The mood of relaxed confidence in the camp was epitomised by what club president Sandro Rosell said today “The future of this team doesn't depend on one game. Whatever happens on Saturday, the season is already excellent." They will play to win; but also without fear and without underestimating their opponents in slightest.

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