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As Europe’s two gladiators prepare to step onto the hallowed turf in the Eternal City, Goal.com’s KS Leong analyses the five steps Barca can take to return to the summit of football.

Barcelona versus Manchester United. It’s the fantasy Champions League final everyone was waiting for and everyone wanted to see, except maybe Chelsea and Arsenal fans.

Regardless of any arguments as to whether or not the right teams are in the showpiece event of Europe’s blue riband competition, there’s no denying that based on results, performances and achievements throughout the 2008/09 campaign, Barca and United thoroughly deserve their place in Rome.

They have been, without question, the two best club sides this season: two teams who have been supremely dominant over their peers, who have already completed domestic doubles; two sides who are the most attack-minded in world football with two of the best players on the planet today.

But while many are expecting this to be a classic game of banzai football, I believe that this could very well be another cagey, tactical encounter, especially if the Red Devils score first and score early.

Many neutral fans appear to favour the Catalans to emerge victorious, simply because of the delectable, Playstation-like football they’ve been exhibiting all season long. But many a pundit believes that the Mancunians will triumph because of their experience and their tactical guile. In addition, they are a Premier League side and we all know just how much Spanish clubs hate squaring off against the physical, uncompromising English.

But the Blaugrana are more than capable of rolling with the punches. And having gone through the hell that was Chelsea and the agony of being edged out by United in last season’s semi-final, you just feel that Barca have learned their lesson well.

If they can play smart football and make the most of their strengths – and even weaknesses – there’s no reason why they can’t lift their third ever European Cup.

1. Take Advantage Of Dani Alves & Eric Abidal Absences

Many will view the absences of Dani Alves, Eric Abidal and centre-back Rafael Marquez as Barcelona’s main Achilles' heel, but it can also very easily be seen as a blessing in disguise.

Without the two marauding full-backs, the Blaugrana will have a more solid and reliable back-four as the coach, Pep Guardiola, will be forced to abandon his mesmeric style of full-throttle football. Carles Puyol will likely be shifted to the right side of defence to cover for the Brazilian and although Captain Heavy Metal can and will join in the attack when necessary, he won’t over-commit himself and leave hazardous gaps at the back.

Besides, Alves’ absence won’t affect the team’s attacking thrust as much as many would like to think. Sure, he provides another dimension to their offence and gives the side a few extra gears, but bear in mind, if United do play as defensively as Chelsea, Dani would have been unlikely to contribute much, as Blues’ fans can testify. But if the Red Devils are a bit flexible at the back, then he won’t be missed much anyway.

Eric Abidal’s non-involvement at left-back should see Sylvinho deputise and the 35-year-old, who no longer has the legs or the stamina, will be spending most of his time at the back. The veteran will have one turbulent evening trying to contain Cristiano Ronaldo, but if he can stay in position throughout the game and rely on the help of his centre-halves or defensive midfielders, he might just do a decent job.

Marquez’s injury, on the other hand, is by far the biggest blow. Not only will it force Guardiola to deploy a makeshift centre-back, in the form of holding midfielder, Toure Yaya, it will also restrict the team’s squad depth and options in the centre of the park. For all the cules, you just have to hope that Yaya has been busy taking notes from his brother, Kolo, at Arsenal.

2. Messi Business

Lionel Messi has been accused lately by some of his detractors of going missing in big games. He appeared tentative against Chelsea, rarely showing his burst of pace or his jaw-dropping skills to run past defenders as he seemed too scared of losing the ball.

He has also looked jaded in recent games and he hasn’t really been as sharp ever since he single-handedly steam-rolled past Bayern Munich in the first leg of the quarter-finals. But this will be his chance to elevate his game again and prove his critics wrong as many believe that if he guides his beloved Barca to glory, he will be crowned the best player in the world seven or so months from now. 

Without Dani Alves to overlap and support him down the right wing, he will have to work twice as hard to get past Patrice Evra, widely regarded as one of the best left-backs today. ‘El Mesias’ has to take the game to United, just as he did in last term’s semi-final, rather than dwell on the ball, wait for his team-mates for assistance, or for spaces to open up.

3. Beware Of Counterattacks & CR7

United may play free-flowing attacking football, but they are not afraid to sit back deep and rely on their counterattack either. Barca were exposed time and again against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and they were only rescued by poor finishing… and the referee. But let’s leave that can of worms for another day.

United have just as stubborn a backline and more crucially, they are extremely potent on the counter, even more so than last season when they used it as their ace up the sleeve to punish the Catalans. And with players like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, they will be even more lethal up-front compared to a wasteful Chelsea.

Ronaldo has been overshadowed by Messi for most of this season, and he may not have dazzled with his fancy footwork as much as he did last season, but he has shown an even more devastating weapon to his game.

Porto goalkeeper, Helton and Arsenal’s shot-stopper, Manuel Almunia will be the first to step up and admit that they were completely stung by the CR7 thunderbolt and the Portuguese will not hesitate to test the often wobbly Victor Valdes from distance on Wednesday night. The Blaugrana defence have to close down the wily trickster immediately every time the ball touches his feet and at the same time, avoid conceding any free-kicks from dangerous positions.

4. Finish The Job

Barca's philosophy is that if they can create enough chances, they will score eventually. Well, that may not hold true in a final. Whereas they had 180 minutes and a bit to finally breach Chelsea, they will only have 90 against United. And as impeccable as the Londoners’ defence was under Guus Hiddink, United will form an even tougher resistance should they adopt the same strategy. Barca must take their chances and this will come down to Samuel Eto'o, whose goalscoring form appears to have deserted him at these closing stages of the season. 

Thierry Henry’s finishing has been top class of late but after his injury, his match fitness and sharpness remain to be seen. Messi usually has a clinical touch in front of goal, often choosing to caress the ball into the back of the net rather than belting one in, but the problem is, he could find it difficult getting into a decent position inside the box.

Although the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi are both more than capable of supplying goals, a lot will depend on Eto’o. Having only netted three times in his last ten outings in all competitions, the Cameroonian could not have chosen a worse time to hit a rough patch. With his Camp Nou future still up in the air, a poor performance in Rome could finally convince the club board to reach for the “request denied” rubber stamp and brush off the striker’s demands to make him one of the highest earners in world football.

5. Attack The Right

If there’s one glaring weakness to United’s game, it is their right side of defence. Whether that slot is occupied by the unfancied John O’Shea, the inexperienced Rafael Da Silva or the ageing Gary Neville, that is where Barca must focus their attacks.

With Ronaldo unwilling to double back to help defend, and with his penchant for losing the ball and drifting out of position, Guardiola’s superstars will have plenty of opportunities to exploit and gang-up on that flank, especially through Iniesta and Henry.

This will hopefully allow Sylvinho to carry on with his main task at hand while also relieving the extra burden and attention on Messi on the other side of the wing.

Of course, outlining such a game plan on the comforts of the Wi-Fi powered laptop is far easier than putting it into practice on the pitch, let alone executing it in the final of the Champions League. But whatever the case, for those who think that the Red Devils will easily saunter to the top of the podium of the Stadio Olimpico because they have a more rounded team, you might like to consider calling up your bookie.

KS Leong, Goal.com

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