Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Style War to choose Rome's Emperor

Champions League Final.
UEFA Champions League Final: Barcelona v Manchester United

While not quite beauty v the beast, the intriguing contrast of Manchester United's organisation and Barcelona's beautiful game is the power v the glory. More than the billed clash of the two fantasistas - Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Stadio Olimpico will host a battle of styles to decide the Emperor of Rome.

Since Brazil won the 1994 World Cup with prosaic powerhouse midfielders, the accepted wisdom has been that top-level football is no place for dainty, pretty players and that a good muscular team will top a good technical one. After pocket battleships like Hagi and Diego Maradona in the 1980s, the winning formula had a nuance of percentage over artistry and along came the giants - Patrick Viera and Gilberto Silva, Zinedine Zidane, Steven Gerrard and Michael Ballack, not destroyers but mobile cruisers who rob and repel attacks, tackle, distribute and drive forward with the ball; Goliaths of all trades.

Style War to choose Rome's Emperor.

But not everyone bought that theory. In winning Euro 2008, Spain were show-stoppers of short and quick passing, sidestepping if not disproving the consensus for brawn and reviving the maxim of the late FIFA President Stanley Rous that there is nothing to make up for skill.

Two of those Euro stars wear the Blaugrana - the ebullient Andres Iniesta and the buzzing Xavi. Add to them the little genius that is Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry's (almost) eternal class and Aliaksandr Hleb's silky dribbling and you have an intoxicating brew that has served up a ton of sexy football in Spain this season, culminating in the memorable 6-2 humiliation of Real Madrid.

United are less dazzling by contrast, but provenly effective and not without panache. Dimitar Berbatov, Ryan Giggs, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez are hardly lacking in creativity, but only Ronaldo is a regular starter. Try as I might, I can't get excited about Anderson and Michael Carrick in the same way I can about Iniesta and Xavi. United are just more take it and attack than tiki-taka. But whose style will triumph? No one is really sure.

My heart is with Barca, though my head suspects last year's winners have an extra dose of big game-savvy and superior defensive steel. Much as I dislike Alex Ferguson, he knows a trick or two Pep Guardiola, almost thirty years his junior, may not. Plus United have Ronaldo, more unpredictable than Messi, and a man who only needs a moment in which to explode to devastating effect, as Porto and Arsenal found out to their cost.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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