What Tony Pulis could teach Pep Guardiola...

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This is the time of known unknowns.

As Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League final nears, the players retreat, coaches mull their selections and the media leaves no cranny unexplored in its search for a new angle.

Many pundits have portrayed Barcelona vs Manchester United as the football equivalent of an Ali vs Frazier boxing title fight.

But Arsene Wenger, who has always had his own take on football, has a different legendary sportsman in mind as he contemplates the final. Not Ali, or Frazier, but Tony Pulis.

Let them beat Stoke
Marie Antoinette was alleged, probably wrongly, to have said of poor Frenchmen: “Let them eat cake”.

Now Wenger, England’s favourite Frenchman, has effectively said that if Barcelona are to prove their greatness, let them beat Stoke City.

Arsenal’s donnish boss laid it on the line in the Daily Mail: “I’m not convinced Barcelona would win the title if they played in the Premier League, It’s very physical and committed – and going to Stoke would be a surprise.”

Funny Wenger should mention that, because I was thinking of Stoke during the semi-final against Chelsea.

Pep Guardiola’s team have played some transcendent football, but Stoke boss Pulis could sharpen up their corners which are often woeful. Barca have taken 82 in the UEFA Champions League this season and scored from just two of them.

"Well this will probably come to nothing..."

From Pulis to Puskas and Seedorf
The hope is that players do not succumb to the pressure and hype surrounding such big games and feel, as Ferenc Puskas put it once, so physically and mentally drained they just want to win the game and be done with it, leaving us with a match as monotonous as Tony Pulis’s cap.

Clarence Seedorf, the only player to have won this competition with three clubs, gives the finalists some free advice in the latest issue of Champions: “Free your mind, and your legs and enjoy it.”

Pointless but interesting
In The Times, Bill Edgar notes that Barcelona have won two of their last eight games, while United have won seven. Not sure if it means anything but it’s interesting.

Barcelona’s average possession in Europe this season is 62 percent. Juan Castro, Marca’s chief sports writer, expects that edge to prove decisive in Rome.

Castro reckons that Barcelona only fear Rooney and Ronaldo but “it will be difficult for those United players to get the ball because Barcelona will dominate possession.”

He believes half of Spain will support the Red Devils for the final. Less flatteringly, he adds that “Liverpool and Arsenal have more followers here than Ferguson’s team.”

The Archibald precedent
Graham Hunter, who often writes for Champions, suggests that the one question every Barca fan is asking is not “How can I get a ticket?” but “Will Iniesta and Henry make it?”

The fans, Hunter suggests, feel their absence will prove too much of a blow. But both will need to prove their match readiness to Guardiola.

As Hunter points out, Guardiola watched, as a 15-year-old ball boy, when a barely fit Steve Archibald toiled as Barca lost the 1986 European Cup final on penalties to Steaua.

(By the way, The Archibald Precedent was my lame attempt to write a cross-head in the style of Robert ‘The Bourne Identity’ Ludlum).

Key to a Catalan triumph

Formation dancing
The biggest known unknown is whether the media’s predicted template for this game – Barcelona attack and United counter – actually happens.

Guardiola’s team will almost certainly play 4-3-3 while United – the journalists at this intriguing New York Times blog predict – will play one, Cristiano Ronaldo, up-front with Park and Rooney on the wing, so 4-5-1 switching to 4-3-3 in attack.

The whole debate makes for fascinating reading but these points struck me:
1. Can Barcelona break up what L’Equipe writer Erik Bielderman calls the “magic triangle” of Toure, Iniesta and Xavi in midfield without suffering the lack of fluency which so nearly saw them lose to Chelsea? Marca deputy editor Santiago Segurola is convinced they can. I’m not so sure.

2. How dangerous is it if United counter attack and let Barca press them? As Peter Berlin, sports editor of the Herald Tribune suggests, it might make more sense to attack Barca’s rejigged defence early on. Scare a back four with three regulars missing, push Barca back and you disrupt their game plan. Bielderman says the key for United is ensuring that their two lines of defence stay connected and keep Barca as far away from the penalty area as possible.

3. This is the best Barca team ever – according to Segurola. But they start the final as slight underdogs. What nobody can tell, as Berlin suggests, is how the occasion affects both teams. This Barca team may just be inspired by the sense that they are on “the verge of greatness” and by United’s decision to wear the white of their old enemy, Real Madrid. And finals, as 2005 and 2008 proved, often defy the script. They can have a mysterious, alchemic effect on teams and players – one that only becomes apparent when the match starts.

A frog’s life
United’s Korean midfielder, the artist formally known as Three Lungs, will probably become the first Asian player to start in a Champions League final – and he owes it all to dad and some frogs.

Park Senior, the New York Times notes, “took a job in a butcher’s shop to provide him with choice cuts of meat and boiled frogs into an unappetising soup, trying to coax a growth spurt.”

And finally…
Off to Rome now, having ransacked the Bionicle container in the kitchen for Euros, with the fervent hope that, as Sir Alex Ferguson put it, this game “paints the real story of football.”

--------------------------------------------------- More to read...

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