Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Champions League Final Preview

And so it has come to this. Two behemoths, bashing at each other for 90 (or, more likely, 120) minutes in a struggle for dominance. I saw Iron Man over the weekend, and I think it's going to be sort of like that, except without Robert Downey Jr.'s leaven of sarcasm. Unfortunately.

Key clashes

  • Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Ashley Cole: Claude Makelele did his best to help United by taking out Cole in practice today, but I'm sure he's still going to play tomorrow. And although Cashley is a jackhole of the first order, he's generally done a good job of shackling Ronaldo. For Ronniecakes, this is his chance to shake off that "big-game bottler" tag once and for all and justify the hype. Well, it's not hype exactly, because he is a staggeringly good player, but if he wants to be named the best player in the world, winning the Champions League is a good way to do it. Take a lesson from Jesus-boy over in Milan.

  • Didier Drogba vs. Vidic, Ferdinand and the power of gravity: Vidic is only recently back from injury, after Drogba (accidentally) kneed him in the face, which could be a weakness, but I think United has the best pair of centre-backs anywhere right now. Drogba is also one of the toughest strikers to defend against, when he's on his game -- as Rafa Benitez learned to his peril a couple weeks ago -- so it could depend on just how focused he is on winning, rather than falling over, bitching at the ref, and handing in a transfer request.

  • United's midfield brains vs. Chelsea's midfield brawn: Okay, that's a bit simplistic. But it's an easy way to summarize: Scholes and Carrick versus Lampard and Ballack. I suspect both teams will be playing a 4-3-3/4-5-1, so it could be pretty congested in midfield, and gaining control there will be essential. United will be hoping that Scholes has one of his good days (fortunately, he'll have Owen Hargreaves there to do the tackling) and justifies Sir Alex's faith in him. For Chelsea, I think Michael Ballack could be the key player; he's stepped up for them a lot recently, and he just strikes me as being a big-game player, somehow.

  • United's fluid attack vs. Chelsea's patched-up defence: I really wish that people would stop eulogizing John Terry for how tough he supposedly is. For a Champions League final, okay, I can understand wanting to play no matter what, dislocated be damned, but in general, if you're not 100% fit, you just risk hurting yourself more and could be a liability to your team. Let's see what happens when he takes the first hit tomorrow. And he doesn't have much pace to begin with -- whereas one of United's greatest assets this season has been their mobility; not just speed, but the way that their attackers almost never stand still. This kind of makes it sound like I think United have the edge here, and maybe they do, but I've also seen far too many games where they cannot seem to buy a goal, so who knows.

Selection dilemmas
  • United: Rooney, Ronaldo and...who else? I expect that Sir Alex will go with their usual European formation and just one up front, rather than two out-and-out strikers. In that case, he could move Rooney over to the left wing and have Tevez lead the line, but I feel like that waste's Rooney's talents. And whoever plays there is probably going to be tracking back a lot to cover Michael Essien's runs from right-back. For that reason, I think it'll be Rooney up front and Ji-Sung Park on the left, with Ryan Giggs on the bench to act as a super-sub.

    Predicted team: Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Hargreaves, Park; Rooney

  • Chelsea: Will it be Essien at right-back? It's not really a dilemma, actually, because playing Essien there solves two problems: (1) Fitting him in the team along with Lampard, Ballack and Makelele; and (2) Covering the fact that their supposed right-backs are kind of crap. I suppose Avram Grant also has to decide who to play on the opposite wing from Joe Cole -- presumably either Malouda or Kalou -- but I don't think it matters all that much. (Whereas for United, choosing between Rooney, Tevez, Giggs and Park could make a big difference in the way they play.)

    Predicted team: Cech; Essien, Carvalho, Terry, A. Cole; Lampard, Makelele, Ballack; J. Cole, Drogba, Kalou

The psychological battle
Both managers have a lot of pressure on them to win, but for Ferguson it's largely self-imposed, whereas for Avram Grant, it's external pressure -- lose this game and you lose your job. The ironic bit is that he'll get the blame if they lose, but likely not the credit if they win. Chelsea's starting XI does basically pick itself, but Grant still has to lay out the strategy (and hope the players listen to him) and decide on the substitutions. I still haven't figured out if he's a good manager or not.

Sir Alex, on the other hand, already has a pretty good CV, but this is his chance to make it look even better. He's not satisfied with just the one Champions League win -- and he knows that he got his tactics wrong and got lucky in 1999, and he'll want to make for that here (and yet avoid second-guessing himself). On top of that, there's the sentimental impetus of this being the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster and the 40th anniversary of United's first European Cup.

How will all this translate to the players? Although the United players may be feeling the weight of history, I think they'll forget that as soon as they step out on the pitch. They've already won the league, which probably means a bit less pressure, but that could actually work to their advantage by freeing them up to play their game. Chelsea will be looking for revenge after finishing behind United in the Premiership two years in a row, but they'll be playing for themselves -- not for the manager, or, for the most part, the club.

And finally, a question for the neutrals: Who are you cheering for tomorrow? Is one side slightly less evil than the other? Or are you just hoping for a sinkhole to engulf the Luzhniki?

1 comment:

weenie said...

Good final, I cheered for Chelsea. Hope you enjoyed it!