Barcelona stands against the trope of English dominance. If they lose, it will be UEFA's last shot at a concerted effort in keeping parity. Well, as per conspiracy theorists. How many times will they rely on Tom Hennings Ovrebro? Then there is Platini's 6+5 argument. Surely, that was hatched to loosen the English death grip on the CL.
Barcelona is still a mystery. There is a feast or famine quality to their play. Sublime against Bayern, ridiculous at the end of season against local rivals. Their problem is that they resemble Arsenal in possession with more attacking firepower but the same suspect defense. They rely on attrition. Very effective against leakier levees which dissolve in a barrage of attacks. But as Chelsea proved, against stronger and physical defending, they have problems creating a swathe.
So the chatter coming out of Spain provides fascinating reading. El Pais weighs in.
Much of the talk is centered around solving Man Utd's Vidic and Ferdinand, by far the best central defending duo in the world. Barca's aerial attack is looking a bit thin.They don't have Dani Alves, out with suspension. The galloping wing back is an attacking threat with his probing crosses. Guardiola acknowledges this: "Without Alves, we lose offense".
On the other side, the loss of Alves and Abidal has forced Pep Guardiola to consider shifting Carlos Puyol to the right flank and possibly Sylvinho mans the left, leaving out the relatively inexperienced Martin Caceres.
Keita could be dropped back from his usual midfield role, to pair up with Pique at the center. The back four's lack of pace exposed by Chelsea on many occasions, could lose another step with this configuration. These open up considerable opportunities for Evra, Ronaldo, Park Ji Sung and Rooney to punch back with rapid counterattacking runs and win set piece opportunities. To seal against such real threats, Barca needs to maintain a tight lid on possession and when they lose the ball to cut off supply: the long diagonal balls or via intermediaries like Carrick and Anderson. Guardiola mentions the duo as the building blocks of Man Utd's game. Carrick almost constantly overlooked in his role as one of the most effective holding midfielders. "He is the lynchpin of Man Utd" while Anderson "shines in his defensive strength."
The matchup of goalkeepers favours Van Der Saar over Victor Valdes, who has looked tentative at times having problems timing his charges from goal and being assertive in set pieces. He was very good against Chelsea but there were unnerving moments against Drogba. VDS has been solid having bounced back from those losses to Liverpool and Fulham. He has povided insurance against the occasional mistakes made by his back four.
Cristiano Ronaldo's maintains a distinct edge over Messi remains in his work rate. He has launched 32 shots on goal scoring four while Messi has made considerably fewer attempts, 11 but been more effective, scoring eight times. Ronaldo needs more open space but shows more versatility with the ways he scores while Messi is much more effective closer to goal, maneuvering out of tight spaces with his foot skills. He also enjoys the advantage of wrong footing defenses cutting in from the right side with his lethal left foot. Its the football version of the crossover dribble. However it also reveals a directional bias which can be used to minimize his forays or render them ineffective.
Like Arsenal, Barca enjoys walking the ball home. So they need to keep VDS honest with some long range efforts. Xavi and Toure can crack a few.
Man Utd's strikers are no slouches at tracking back. They will be very busy. Evra will be bolstered by Park Ji Sung, whose work rate needs no introduction, to manage Messi. John O'Shea's potential weaknesses can be exploited by Thierry Henry who returns to pace after injury but it must be comforting to have Rooney's help with his speed and physicality used so effectively for defensive purposes. In the center Rio and Vidic will keep a wary eye on Samuel Eto'o to stop the Camerounian from slipping in and monitor the movements of the dangerous Iniesta controlling the center.
Essentially, it will come down to Barcelona inventing ways to win but Man Utd looks the more dangerous team.