How Manchester United can beat Barcelona
Winning the midfield battle will be the determining factor in the 2011 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United, just as it was when they met in 2009.
Two years ago, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson left the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, plotting how his team would avoid riding the Barca "carousel" next time they met.
Now he has his chance, using the lessons learned from a demoralising evening when Lionel Messi shifted to the centre of the pitch and was instrumental in causing all sorts of bother for Ferguson's side.
The problem now, though, is that the Scot believes the Catalan side are even better, so how does he go about plotting their downfall this time?
Line-up and formation
Darren Fletcher missed the 2009 final, and his suspension was viewed as a contributing factor to Barca's midfield dominance. On that occasion, Anderson played alongside Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs in a 4-3-3 system, with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Park Ji-sung ahead of them.
That was an attempt to flood the midfield and match Barca's formation but once they had taken an early lead, Pep Guardiola's side passed it around the United players, aided by the deeper role Messi took up that evening.
Although David Villa and Pedro have since replaced forwards Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, Barcelona's midfield will again feature Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, so Ferguson faces the dilemma of drafting in Fletcher or Anderson to play alongside Carrick and Giggs, or sticking with his most recent incarnation.
The potency of Javier Hernandez this term has shifted Ferguson's tactics so that Rooney has adopted a deeper role, thereby dropping into midfield to help out Carrick and Giggs, while Park and Antonio Valencia patrol the wide areas.
The line-ups in the respective Champions League semi-finals give an idea of the kind of shape each team might employ.
Playing four in midfield with Rooney dropping deeper might represent a gamble, but if Rooney can negate Busquets it will allow Hernandez to keep Barcelona's defence occupied, even when the Catalans are on the attack.
On the other hand if Ferguson goes for a five-man midfield he could even choose to place Rooney up front on his own, as he did so successfully last season.
"I think Wayne can play anywhere as he has shown over the last few years. He's such an enthusiastic lad," says former United midfielder Nicky Butt. "With his work ethic he will work back and defend as well so I don't see why the manager will not stick with the same line-up. Hernandez has been brilliant all year as well.
"Obviously United will try to stop Barcelona's top names playing and that will be part of the plan, I'm sure. But they have to go out there and impose themselves on the game to have any chance of winning. They didn't do that two years ago."
Defending against Barcelona
Ferguson, like any other opposition manager facing Barca, has to accept that there will be periods of the game when Guardiola's side will dominate possession. Their average ball retention in the Champions League this season is 62%, with Manchester United second best on 58%, but too much relevance can sometimes be placed on this statistic.
Arsenal had only 39% possession in the first leg of their last-16 tie with Barca this season, yet the Gunners won the game 2-1.
The value of possession to the Spanish side, though, is that they use it almost as thinking time. The first instinct of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta is to pass, get it back and use that time to see what is developing in front of them.
The other benefit is that while the Catalans keep the ball, United will be using energy to win it back, so Ferguson might ask his team to only press the ball intensely in certain areas.
Passes to Busquets and Messi from the second leg of their semi-final against Real Madrid show the areas that United will have to marshall.
"Messi likes to drop into that hole just in front of the back four and behind the midfield so somebody in midfield needs to be aware of that and the two centre-backs need to govern when they go in and when they stay as a back four.
"Against Arsenal in the first half of the first leg, Barcelona were absolutely outstanding and Messi was picking the ball up all the time. Arsenal midfield Alex Song didn't know whether to drop back, the centre-half didn't know whether to come in and mark him and Messi tore Arsenal to pieces in that area."
There is an argument in favour of playing a high line against Barca as Real Madrid did in their 1-1 draw in La Liga on 16 April. But that will only allow space behind United's defence, and between their centre-backs and full-backs, for Villa and Pedro to run into.
Key to all this will be Rooney's role against Busquets. The England striker struggled to pick up Song in their recent Premier League game when he was asked to do a similar job, so that may influence Ferguson's thinking.
United will also be heartened by the best defensive record in the Champions League this season. En route to the final they have conceded only four goals.
Transition from defence to attack
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the game on Saturday will be how well United hold onto the ball once they have won it back.
Nothing frustrates players more than, having spent two minutes pressing the ball to win it back, it is then given away at the first opportunity. Messi's goal in the 2009 final came from Patrice Evra's clearance which went straight to Xavi.
When Barca lose the ball they press in packs to regain it, a tactic that is often successful. The reason? As Steve McClaren explained recently, courtesy of Johan Cruyff, several Barcelona players are never more than 10 yards away from the ball because they only tend to pass it that distance.
This is where fitness kicks in. United's players must be able to concentrate on maintaining possession straight away even though they may have been chasing the ball intensely. Dixon believes you can beat the Barca press if a longer pass out of the danger zone is employed quickly and United will want to avoid the same number of misplaced passes as in the 2009 final (see table).
"Look at Park, Ryan is still going strong, and Fletcher and Anderson can all get about the pitch. So they have the players to stop Barcelona, but also to break forward once they win the ball. If they can win the ball high up the pitch, and win it early, they can then break off and it could help United win the game.
"Manchester United are better on the front foot and I'm sure Ferguson and the coaching staff will have been studying how to break Barcelona down. United have so much pace in midfield and on the wings with Nani and Valencia so if they can break off into space then they will cause problems."
This is where key decisions will come into play: when do United concentrate on maintaining possession and when do they break quickly? The experience of Giggs may help in this process after recent displays where he has dictated the tempo of United's play.
Attacking Barcelona's weaknesses
"If Manchester United can get past Barca's first phase of closing the ball down, they certainly have the players in wide areas who can hurt their two full-backs," Dixon states.
"I don't think they are the best defenders. They like to bomb forward and they do leave gaps at the back so I think it's important that United are in the right area of the pitch, are together when they win the ball back, and then hit them on the break."
Even though they may not start, Anderson and Fletcher could be key men in boosting the energy levels in United's midfield as the game reaches the second half.
And if someone is needed to switch the ball quickly to one of United's wide men behind the likes of Dani Alves or Eric Abidal, then who better than Paul Scholes to do it?
"It's hard to find weaknesses in the Barca team but every team has them," Butt adds. "Gerard Pique is a top player but Carles Puyol dives in a lot and, although he is a top player too, he can give away silly free-kicks which players like Nani will thrive on.
"The weaknesses that Barca have at the back are United's strengths: Rooney running into the channels on the left then cutting in and shooting, Nani dribbling down that side, or Valencia on the other flank. They have a lot of pace on the wings to counter-attack what Barcelona are going to do."
Ferguson has an almost fully-fit squad to choose from and may also have learned the lesson of keeping his team in tune rather than giving his players an 11-day gap between their penultimate Premier League game against Arsenal and the 2009 final.
But more than anything he will have a team that will be desperate to make amends after failing to show Manchester United's attacking ethos in Rome.
"Ferguson has enough in his team," Butt concludes. "They are probably the most successful team in Europe over the last six years. They have won four titles and this is their third Champions League final in four years.
"They have got to be very confident going into it and I'm sure the minute they walked off the pitch two years ago the manager was thinking about what they had to do to beat Barcelona next time.
"He's had a long period to mull it over and I'm sure the team know exactly what they need to do. Mark my words, over the last six or seven weeks he will have been getting the players ready."