After Manchester United submitted Shalke 04 (4-1) in the second leg of the Champions League semi-finals, many people celebrated the setting of a final worthy of the competition’s name. After all, both Barcelona and United will, after the match, have been in three Champions League’s finals over the last five years. The teams are well known by their profound sense of tactical organisation inside the pitch, and, with different styles, by their breathtaking attacking football.
So if we can think of anyone displeased with the fixture (besides José Mourinho), who would it be? In this writer’s humble opinion, even if they’re happy to a great degree, right now, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, must have much to worry.
No, this is not (again) about the genius of Lionel Messi nor the class of Wayne Rooney. Right now we’re talking about the men who usually move around the last line of defenders, waiting the exact moment to do damage, faster than a blink of an eye. Those truly “born offside”. Since the liberalisation of the offside law, in the middle of the last decade, these kind of fast-thinking and agile strikers started to grow in numbers. The concept is old and simple: better than having to beat the defender in one-on-one is to be playing off his shoulders looking for the perfect time to run into a through ball, “materialising” in front of the goal with only the keeper to beat. David “El Guaje” Villa and (I’ll explain it latter) Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez are this kind of players. Curiously enough the “born offside” expression is commonly linked to Sir Alex Ferguson who is remembered saying about the milanista goalscorer Filippo Inzaghi: “that lad must have been born offside”.
With 34 matches played in La Liga, David Villa was caught offside 71 times. If we compare him with Messi and Pedro Rodriguez, the other two Barcelona’s strikers, the real weight of this quantity becomes easier to understand: the Argentine has been caught offside 18 times in 33 matches while the Canarian was declared offside in 14 occasions out of 32 matches. But as much as this seems like a big “negative” number, working in the last line is one of the main assets of Villa’s play. Let’s not forget two of the most important Barcelona’s goals of this season. The first, his first goal against Madrid at the 5-0 “El Clasico”, after a Messi’s through ball, where he demonstrated his superb first touch and finished greatly. The second against Arsenal at the Emirates, again after a Messi’s pass. First touch finish, through the legs of Szczesny. Guardiola’s plan to make Messi a “false nine” positioned at the centre of the action demands a sacrificed Villa to play wide, usually on the left. But Villa, as many Barça’s players do, is always switching positions, and these two important goals were created centrally. Many of Villa’s goals are scored after a last line breakthrough – not only at Barcelona, but also with Spain and at Valencia before.
Even so, things have not been easy in the last few months for “El Guaje”. In the 17 fixtures he played following his great goal against Arsenal he has scored just twice. Although always important giving Messi space to create, Villa has clearly not been as accurate as normal and his first touch lacks the precision it usually has. After a brilliant collective play, in the first part of the recent derby against Espanyol, Villa had the golden opportunity of scoring an epoch defining goal. Once more he missed. This season, the most prolific Spanish striker still got a point to make – no place better than Wembley.
The seven years younger Javier Hernandez, meanwhile, has been shining like gold in the last matches – Petr Cech being the last spectator of his quickness of thinking. Ok, besides the goal against Chelsea, he’s not obviously the first choice when we think of an “offside-born” striker, as many of his goals were from headers or from finishing after crosses, but let’s look at his assets. The Manchester’s website with justice describes him as an “out-and-out striker” who is “quick, two-footed and strong in the air” (any coincidence with Villa isn’t merely a coincidence). In 27 league matches he has scored 13 times, a percentage close to that of Villa (18 goals in 34 league matches). And this is only his first season at Old Trafford! Most important is the similarity between what his relation with Rooney is becoming and the Villa-Messi connection (so this is something about Rooney and Messi after all!). As Messi, this season Rooney’s is transforming himself in a great assistant, as he sits deep in the midfield more often, looking for space to play the ball behind the last line of defense. Even if he isn’t used playing this way, Hernandez’s increasingly acknowledging the necessity of doing so, and he’s the man with the ability and intelligence required. In the final the Mexican striker have serious chances of going into the spotlight if he plays off the shoulders of Barça’s defenders.
Barcelona will certainly play with defenders high up the pitch, putting pressure with its strikers up front. Rooney and Chicharito will then have lot of space for a last line breakthrough “combo” – that is, if Barcelona players fail to do their pressing well. But on the other hand, the red devils will certainly have problems with the vision of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (not to say the full-back playmaker Dani Alves). Maybe United should use some pressing of its own as it wouldn’t be wise for anybody to give the last three candidates for FIFA Ballon d’Or time to think. A deep lying defence may add difficulty to the catalan’s space search, but let’s not forget that Barcelona’s strikers and midfielders have become used playing with very little space. For them, one of the main concerns will be a new and surprising one: the accuracy of David Villa. As a prediction we can expect a match surrounded by the ghost of the last line.
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