We continue our build up to the Champions League Final with the preview of another of Britain’s top football journalists. Yesterday we ran our chat with Gabriele Marcotti and now it’s the turn of the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor and CNN’s Alex Thomas to give us their thoughts on Saturday’s final with Barcelona.
Yolkie : Hi Daniel, Alex… United against Barcelona at Wembley in a Champions League final is probably the ultimate game in football, from an English perspective. Where would you rank this occasion along football’s great occasions?
Daniel Taylor : We’ll probably know the answer to that afterwards. It could be a classic, but that depends on whether Fergie’s tactics revolve around looking to honour United’s tradition and live up to the legend – or if it is based around conservatism and trying to stop Barcelona. As an occasion, it’s all set up – the best two club teams around, at Wembley, under the floodlights.
Alex Thomas : The Champions League final is arguably the single biggest one-off sports game in the world right now – for commercial reasons more than footballing ones. And this season, Manchester United and Barcelona have been the highest achievers in Europe. So, for that reason, this is a titanic match – two of football’s biggest brands head to head in the planet’s most prestigious club match.
Yolkie : It could be said we were slightly over confident playing Barcelona in the final 2 years ago and we looked clueless from the second we conceded the first goal. Fergie said after the game he knew what went wrong but wouldn’t talk about it; he hasn’t really, since. So what do you think he’ll be looking to address to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
DT : The key word he has been repeating for the last few weeks is ‘concentration’ – as in, United lost theirs in Rome. Vidic was badly at fault for the first goal, Ferdinand allowed Messi to elude him for the second. The player who bossed the Rome final was actually Iniesta and, for me, it’s how you stop those little triangular patterns betweem him, Xavi and Messi. But I’ll be honest – if those three play at their very maximum I don’t think there’s a team in the world who can stop them.
AT : My understanding is that Sir Alex has questioned his team’s concentration levels. Against a team as talented a Barcelona, a side can’t afford to let their guard slip for a moment and United were unusually sloppy that night in Rome two years ago. Ferguson has been hammering the point home to United ever since and the return of Darren Fletcher gives the manager an option he lacked in 2009.
Yolkie : Would it be fair to say that after nearly 3 years of constant adulation and almost a generation of favourable press about the style they play (deservedly so, I might add!), we’re finally seeing a backlash regarding their play acting, particularly from the likes of Alves and Pedro?
AT : No. I would say Barcelona were quite rightly pilloried for some of their play acting in the games against Real Madrid but, in general, I feel most football lovers still believe the Catalan club plays the sport in the best possible way. Barca took far more flack in the British (and Madrid) press than anywhere else. I still think they are the team to emulate but that doesn’t mean Manchester United don’t have a great chance of beating them.
DT : Everyone felt let down after the Real Madrid semi-final, didn’t they? We thought it would be a classic and the only real memory of it now is all the diving etc that went on. I’ve had a personal grievance with Busquets ever since this but it has reached a point now where, if they resort to that at Wembley, the backlash will become a permanent state of opinion. It’s easy getting a bad name in football, very hard to shake it off, and they may find that out if Saturday turns into another diving-fest. That said, my first thoughts about Barcelona are very much about the football that they play.
Yolkie : United look like they will play the same 4-4-2 shape and keep the same personnel in as they did in the latter knock out stages against Chelsea and Schalke. Can we play that same way against Barcelona, or would you rush Darren Fletcher in, regardless of whether he’s 100%, given that this is the last game of the season?
AT : I’m really torn. Sir Alex has to decide if he wants to contain Barcelona and hope to win by the odd goal on the break, or attack and leave United more vulnerable in the hope they simply score more goals. People forget that Arsenal actually won their home leg against Barca when they threw caution to the wind and scored late on. It was somewhat lucky but it worked. If I had to put money on it I would say Ferguson will drop Hernandez and bolster the midfield perhaps playing Carrick AND Fletcher alongside Giggs, Ji-Sung Park and Valencia.
DT : The best two performances of the season were Schalke away and Chelsea in the league at home. I’d go with that team, with Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield and Rooney dropping back into midfield when needed. I never bought into the theory that, if Fletcher had played in Rome, it would have been very different. Maybe a little, but not hugely. Fergie has talked about him being a classic big-game player but, while that’s true, he hasn’t had an outstanding season.
Yolkie : It’d be foolish to suggest that Rooney is on the same level as Messi; but it’s surely not just the opinion of just a biased United supporter that he is capable of the same kind of magic to turn this kind of game…
DT : He seems to have put 2010 behind him now, particularly the last two or three months. He was average in Moscow and again in Rome so maybe this will be the final when he reminds the world that he deserves to be thought of as one of the game’s genuine superstars. If you look at the last two World Cups, there have been too many times when he has not played well enough in front of a global audience.
AT : In a one-off match like the Champions League final, Wayne Rooney is just as much a match winner as Lionel Messi. Take Rooney’s overhead kick earlier in the season as an example of how he can conjure the same moments of brilliance as the World Player of the Year, just slightly less frequently.
Yolkie : Is there anything to read into Barcelona’s relatively poor recent record in England? They aren’t the best travellers under Guardiola…
DT : I wouldn’t say so but if the pitch at Wembley is a bit slow (which it often is) that won’t suit them.
AT : That may be true but I can’t see it being a factor in the final. Footballers and teams at that level, and in that sort of match, simply have their eyes on the prize – and what a prize it is. I can’t wait. Let’s hope it lives up to expectations.
Yolkie : Who do you expect to win the game? You predicted Barcelona would, the last time we talked. Has there been anything from either side that would change your mind?
DT : I still think Barcelona may have that little too much but I’ll counter that by saying it will be closer than Rome and I don’t think United will view them with any trepidation. What was shocking about Rome was that it’s unusual for the players to let the club down on the big nights and I can’t see that happening again. Maybe 2-1 to Barcelona after extra time. But for all their hype, I don’t Barcelona are unbeatable. Remember, Arsenal were only a fluffed Nicklas Bendtner shot away from knocking them out.
Yolkie : Finally, a question I asked Gabriele Marcotti regarding the journalist who Sir Alex wanted to have banned for asking him about Ryan Giggs? It was a fair question out of context, but to me in the context it was asked, it seemed loaded and a little unprofessional to be asking something like that at such a time. Gabriele disagreed and said he believed in freedom of speech; I’d like to know your own opinion on that incident?
DT : It’s a press conference: the journalists can ask whatever they like, within reason. There was a genuine football question to be asked ie ‘how has the last few weeks and in particular the last few days affected Giggs’s state of mind going into this match and is that a concern in terms of his performance on the field?’ He was never, absolutely never, going to entertain the question, but it was still a fair enough thing to ask.
You’re right, it was phrased in a loaded way, from someone he didn’t know (which doesn’t help). There’s no point trying to deceive one of the game’s most streetwise men by dancing round the subject. And Fergie saw straight through it. But come on, take away the bias, if that was a manager of another club (Wenger, say) coming out with ‘we’ll get him’ you wouldn’t be saying it was the journalist being unprofessional. Fergie lets himself down in times like that, and that’s from someone who routinely upsets other journalists by refusing to take part in their all-press-must-stick-together routine.
Thanks to Daniel and Alex for their time – Daniel recently released his latest book, “Squeaky Bum Time”, featuring a collection of great quotes from Sir Alex Ferguson – we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks. You can buy it here!