x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Defence best form of United's attack

Two catenaccios, said a deadpan Sir Alex Ferguson, asked to discuss the relative styles of Manchester United and Barcelona.

Two catenaccios, said a deadpan Sir Alex Ferguson, asked to discuss the relative styles of Manchester United and Barcelona. That many, United players among them, have deemed it the dream final permitted him to joke. Barcelona and Chelsea were branded beauty and the beast respectively in the semi-finals. No such unflattering contrast will be made between the Spanish and English champions. Barcelona have an unwavering commitment to passing, while attacking is in United's DNA.

Injuries and suspensions deprive Pep Guardiola of four defenders, so Ferguson has reasons to be positive. The prospect of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo running at the 35-year-old reserve left-back Sylvinho or exploiting Yaya Toure's uncertain positioning should spur United forwards. That is their tradition and Ferguson's preference. Yet the last great dictator of football management can be more of a chameleon than is often acknowledged. His progressive ethos remains, but it has been allied with pragmatism.

Barcelona's attack accounts for their progress, United's defence for theirs. It is instructive that Nemanja Vidic was his colleagues' choice as United's player of the year, that Liverpool outscored them in the Premier League and that they have eight clean sheets in 12 Champions League games. Given Barcelona's likely domination of possession, an emphasis on defence can become still more pronounced. Even against lesser opponents, the cavaliers have acquired a cautious streak. Barcelona's Dream Team, in its original incarnation, exposed a naivety in thrashing United 4-0 in 1994. Six years later, the recognition that his first Champions League-winning side could be outnumbered in midfield prompted Ferguson to reconfigure his side.

Becoming harder to beat entails sacrificing something. Today, it is a potential £60million (Dh350m) strike-force. Dimitar Berbatov was added to the constellation of stars last year, but he and Carlos Tevez are likely to be rationed to cameos. Instead, the front three should include Ji-sung Park, a deserving participant but a man selected for his work ethic. The Korean's return in front of goal - 12 in four seasons - is negligible, but his industry is admirable. With Park on one flank and Rooney on the other, the notional forward line may prove the first form of defence. When United visited the Nou Camp last season, Rooney operated as a right-sided midfielder, protecting his full-back, Owen Hargreaves, diligently.

It was an indication that Ferguson is fearful of the Catalans. Arsenal may represent Barcelona's closest comparison in England and the United manager tends to customise his tactics for the Gunners. A game-plan will be formulated to halt Guardiola's side. Even at Old Trafford last season, Barcelona enjoyed 62 per cent of possession. Keeping two clean sheets determined United's progress then; a third tonight is as significant as troubling the makeshift back four.

Moreover, the defence has proved the most reliable department of Ferguson's team this season. The sequence of 14 successive clean sheets produced 38 points without United often scaling the attacking heights. If winning ugly is not in their vocabulary, the temptation to rival Barcelona for style will be ignored. The outcome may depend upon the contest between the best attack and the best defence in Europe. Given Ronaldo's potency and Rooney's effervescence, United have a considerable threat of their own. But if it won't qualify as catenaccio, it certainly won't be gung-ho either.

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