Preview: 2011 Manchester United Champions League Final
Coming off of a disappointing 2009-2010 campaign (during which they saw their streak of three straight English Premier League titles snapped by Chelsea), the Red Devils spurned the idea of making big-money offseason acquisitions and instead only bolstered their squad with the relatively unheralded Mexican forward Javier Hernandez.
Hernandez scored his first goal in a United shirt that Houston night, tallying the final goal in his team’s 5-2 victory over the MLS All-Stars. Hernandez, better known as “Chícharito,” hasn’t looked back since, scoring 21 goals in all competitions this season, tied for the team high with Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov.
Chícharito and his United teammates reclaimed their Premier League crown earlier this month and enter Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final against FC Barcelona in London full of confidence.
Hernandez’s emergence as a star striker for the Red Devils has embodied the club’s move away from the lavish and spectacular to the efficient and effective.
For proof, all one has to do is look at the club’s goal scoring leaders, where Berbatov and Hernandez have replaced Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo (sold to Real Madrid for a world record $132 million in June of 2009) and Argentine striker Carlos Tevez (sold to rivals Manchester City for around $40 million the same summer).
That isn’t to say, however, that this year’s squad is lacking firepower.
English forward Wayne Rooney has modified his game into becoming more of a distributor than an out-and-out striker, posting 13 assists to go with his 15 goals on the season. Wingers Nani and Ryan Giggs have given the Red Devils excellent width and have registered a combined 26 assists on the year.
“It will be down to how we operate in the attacking part,” Ferguson said of his team’s chances on Saturday. “I'm sure Barcelona are aware of the threats we have. We have to rely on our players to perform.”
The real strength of this United squad, though, has been in defense.
Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will make his final appearance for the team Saturday before hanging up the boots for good. His play this season, during which he has given up only 37 goals in 46 matches, has left many Red Devils supporters begging him to put off retirement. Defenders Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra have consistently put up strong performances in front of van der Sar throughout the year.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the 69-year-old Scotsman, remains the man at the helm of United, a position he’s held since 1986. During that time, Ferguson has led the Red Devils to 12 Premier League titles, five English FA Cup victories and two UEFA Champions League triumphs.
“To go on winning over a long period of time, to go through two, three, four cycles of renewing a team and keep winning, that is greatness,” FC Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola said at a press conference. It’s an honor to be facing him again.”
Pundits have called this season one of Ferguson’s best coaching jobs, pointing to the relative lack of superstars on this year’s squad.
The Red Devils blistering league form didn’t see them lose a match until early February. Despite four losses in its final 14 games, United won the league by a comfortable nine points over rivals Chelsea and Manchester City.
The season’s triumph was the record-breaking 19th English league title in the club’s history, one more than long-time nemesis Liverpool.
“It’s not been an easy season,” Rooney told the club’s official web site.
United’s road to the Champions League final has been solid if not spectacular. Despite only scoring seven goals in six matches, the Red Devils topped their qualifying group with four wins and two draws.
After a goalless draw on the road to Marseille in the first leg of the round of 16, two goals from Hernandez in the return leg put United through with a 2-1 aggregate win.
The Red Devils then outlasted Chelsea in an all-English quarterfinal, defeating the Blues 3-1 over two legs behind goals from Hernandez, Rooney and Park Ji-Sung.
United rolled by German side Schalke 04 in the semis, posting a 6-1 aggregate victory.
For all the talk about the team’s renaissance season, the buzz surrounding the lead up to the game has been of an entirely different nature.
Giggs, a 37-year-old Welshman who has played his entire career for the Red Devils and who will go down as one of the best to ever wear the United shirt, has been caught in a media firestorm over an alleged extra-marital affair with Welsh model Imogen Thomas.
Reports now say that the married father of two attempted to obtain a gag order to prevent the British press from running the story. The issue has become such a distraction that Ferguson tried to ban an Associated Press reporter from United press conferences, after the journalist asked a seemingly harmless question this week about Giggs’ importance to the team.
All this comes at the worst possible time for a United side preparing to face one of the best teams in recent memory in the world’s biggest soccer game of the year.
The Red Devils can expect a large contingent of their red clad supporters to be in attendance at London’s Wembley Stadium as they try to avenge their 2-0 loss to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome.
Then, Ronaldo and Tevez couldn’t overcome Barcelona’s keep away style. Saturday night, Hernandez and the new United will get their chance.
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