As part of our build up for the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United, Gabriele Marcotti – renowned football journalist for the Times, BBC, and Wall Street Journal among others – joined us for a chat to give us his fantastic insight on Saturday’s occasion.
Yolkie : United against Barcelona in a Champions League Final at Wembley Stadium – it could barely be any more glamorous as far as English football goes – where would you rank it in comparison with the great events in the English game?
Gabriele Marcotti : Champions’ League finals are obviously always special, this one though stands apart because it pits the newly crowned champions of the world’s top two leagues against each other. This means the sides weren’t just great a year ago (leagues being the best parameter, in my opinion, of a team’s strength) but they’re still great now, both in a league format and in a knockout competition.
Yolkie : 2 years ago United approached the game almost with a slight over confidence – Barcelona were missing a couple of defenders and it was argued if we stifled the midfield we would be able to squeeze the result. It turned out to be nothing like that and ever since Barcelona have earned accolades as regularly as trophies, with some saying this is the best club side ever. Conversely, despite winning a record English Championship this year, United have been rated as one of Sir Alex’s weakest Championship winning squads. Where do you stand on both theories?
GM : I don’t think United’s approach in Rome was so far off the mark, they were a great side, they have every reason to be confident. And don’t forget, United had an early chance (Park Ji Sung, if I recall correctly) which could have changed the game. The mistake Sir Alex made that night, in my opinion, was in the way Ryan Giggs was used. He was too far up the pitch in my opinion (at least it looked that way watching in person, not sure how it came across on TV). I don’t think there is much argument that, in terms of technical ability and condition, this has been a rough season for United and you could argue it’s the weakest United team since 2006. Apart from Nemanja Vidic and Edwin Van der Sar, I don’t think anybody has been consistently fit AND productive all year long. You can turn this into a strength however because it gives you more unpredictability and flexibility. Even as we approach this final, I don’t think there’s a single midfielder or striker, apart from Rooney, who can be 100 percent certain of starting. Evra said it best: “We’re not as brilliant as we have been in seasons past but, mentally, we’re much tougher. And different people peak at different times to make the difference.” From a managerial perspective, I think this has been one of Sir Alex’s greatest ever achievements.
Yolkie : Much was made over Sir Alex’s handling over the reporter (Rob Harris) who asked a loaded question about Ryan Giggs earlier in the week – Sir Alex has come in for a lot of criticism over saying he wanted the reporter banned, but where do you stand on just asking the question? Do you think that line of loaded questioning is appropriate or even professional considering the nature of the occasion?
GM : When it comes to free speech. I’m an absolutist. First of all, I don’t think it’s a loaded question. Giggs is an important player for United, he’s 37 and he’s had a major off-the-pitch incident to deal with. It’s a fair and reasonable question to ask what condition he’s in. Obviously, Sir Alex doesn’t need to answer the question or he can answer it the way he did. Had he left it there it would have been fine. But then trying to ban the reporter – who, lest we forget, is not a gossip columnist or even associated with any of the papers who delved into Giggs’ private life, he’s a guy who writes for the world’s biggest wire service, serving tens of thousands of outlets around the world and most of whose copy is entirely dry and factual because that’s what his job is – was unnecessary, unfair and counterproductive.
Yolkie : After the semi finals there seem to be a slight neutralisation – by which I mean, a bad taste was left in the mouths of many (certainly in England) by the way Barcelona players behaved against Madrid, while United’s football in the triumph over Schalke won over a few doubters. Outside of England, is there the beginning of something of a backlash against Barcelona for their theatrics (not that I’m saying that United, certainly with some individuals, are angels themselves!)?
GM : I don’t think you can read much in United’s win over Schalke, a poor side who were also missing a number of key players. I agree about the backlash towards Barcelona, but I also think it followed a certain script here in England. Part of it was that after hearing how great Barca were all season, there was a certain eagerness to knock them down (it’s the old media mantra: they build you up and knock you down again, everybody’s been through it). Part of it was Jose Mourinho and his accusations: few people are as savvy at spinning the media as The Special One. And part of it, objectively, was that some Barcelona players – Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets above all – did look to dive and take advantage of situations. But the brutal reality is that many big players in many big games do just that. The difference is that this Barcelona v Real semifinal was scrutinized in a way that few matches have ever been scrutinized in the past.
Yolkie : Two possible game plans including crowding Messi out of the game or, conversely, ignoring him altogether and just trying to stop his supply. Which of these would you imagine Sir Alex will favour?
GM : I think he’ll work to stop the supply, but mainly in the final third, and then, when United win the ball back, react by keeping possession and trying to win free kicks in their own half or hitting on the counter, especially if Hernandez starts (if Barca press) or building from the back and exploiting the wings (if Barca don’t).
Yolkie : Two years ago Sir Alex’s post match silence was infamous; he suggested he knew what went wrong but he wasn’t ready to talk about it. He never has at length since though he has given hints. What do you think he will have addressed and seek to apply this time around?
GM : I just think he got his formation wrong in the way he used Giggs. But, honestly, I really don’t know what goes on in his head.
Yolkie : Eric Abidal has made a sensational recovery from his illness and no-one would begrudge him a final appearance, yet with all due respect his game rustiness might make such a decision a sentimental risk – do you think Barcelona will start with him at left back or do you think they’ll go with Mascherano at centre back and Puyol on the left?
GM : Impossible to answer, will depend on their physical condition. But, especially if Mascherano plays, set pieces can be crucial for United, given the height advantage.
Yolkie : So, what do you think United have to do in order to win? Do you think that – as seems likely – the 4-4-2 shape of Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney and Chicharito can trouble Barcelona’s six man “merry go round”?
GM : I think United have an incredible range of options. The problem is, on the one hand, the more options you have, the more possibilities you have of finding the right combination. But, also, the more chances you have of finding a combination that doesn’t work. It’s actually a really complex question. And I’ll throw out a caveat: you can’t really answer it without having a very clear idea of what physical and mental condition certain players are in. And only United’s coaching staff can accurately gauge that. Personally, if Fletcher was 100 percent I’d have him in there, for example. And you also need to decide whether you want to press or not. If you press, I’m not sure Carrick and Giggs fit, and in that case, you may want to bring Giggs off the bench as a game-changer. There’s also Nani, who hasn’t played in big games recently, but who could be very effective in exploiting the space that Dani Alves will inevitably leave, more so than Giggs because Nani is quicker and has more energy at this stage and more so than Park, because Nani has more quality. It may not be a very satisfactory answer from me, but the reality is that, without knowing the exact state of United’s players, I don’t think you can really judge Sir Alex’s lineup or suggest what he should do.
Yolkie : Do you think it’s too much of a gamble to start with two forwards, even though one is defensively responsible (Rooney) and the other is certainly not shy of hard work? And additionally, would the selection of Fletcher be a sentimental risk too?
GM : Like I said, impossible to tell what condition Fletcher is in, without having watched him closely in training. Attacking Barcelona and looking to pin them back is one way to play and there’s a logic to it. I don’t think it would necessarily be a gamble.
Yolkie : Nice and easy one to end; who are you predicting as winners?
GM : Logic suggests Barca, but, frankly, it’s hard to call.
Thanks to Gabriele for his time and insight. If you have Twitter and somehow are not following him yet, here is his Twitter page!