Barcelona can be overcome if Manchester United keep their wits about them and follow five golden rules
Barcelona's principal threat is obvious, the mesmeric Lionel Messi and the combination play he strikes up with Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta in particular, bursting through the centre and bypassing defenders with clever passing exchanges. Manchester United will be aware of that and must seek to close the space between their own back-line and midfield ranks to make sure Messi has less room to work in. Occasionally, Rio Ferdinand will have to be brave and step out to pick up the Argentinean. By doing that, they will clearly risk leaving open space in behind, but Barça aren't a team who seek to play David Villa in with balls over the top. Even so, Edwin van der Sar will have to be alert and sweep up any passes lofted over his defenders. The Premier League side must keep their shape and, when Messi drifts to the flanks, Patrice Evra and Fábio da Silva must be aware. To take a man out and man-mark the brilliant Argentinian would be counter-productive.
United must be proactive in terms of their selection and approach. In Rome back in 2009, Wayne Rooney was asked to play wide left with little effect. This time around, Park Ji-sung's energy must be employed in that position with the South Korean charged with attacking Dani Alves, a player happiest when marauding down the flank as a supplementary attacker, and try to make the full-back concentrate on defending. He is uncomfortable when pushed back into his shell. United must seek to pin back the Brazilian and, when the free-flowing full-back does break free to join his midfielders in their forward forays, the Premier League team must seek to exploit the space he has left behind on the counterattack once possession is prised from the Catalans.
Rooney, in a central role, will carry an attacking threat for United but he has defensive duties to play as well. The England forward must sit on Sergio Busquets, Barcelona's deepest-lying midfielder, when the Catalans start passing the ball out from the back. Busquets is their go-through man, a distributor with a fine passing range but the man who presents the play to the creative talents ahead. Yet, as Real Madrid showed in the semi-finals, the Spain international can become irritated if he is afforded close attention. Rooney must cramp his style, hassle and buzz around him, making sure Busquets is continually harassed when in possession. He can help cut off Barça at their source.
Víctor Valdés likes to start attacks, distributing to Busquets or his centre-halves when he collects the ball in open play, and, if only intermittently, United must close down the goalkeeper and those around him to force him to kick long. They have to snap on to the goalkeeper and push in on his centre-backs, who tend to split, and the deep-lying midfielder. They have to cut out the angle for Valdés and leave him no options. That will play into United's hands – their strength will be in the aerial ability of Nemanja Vidic and Ferdinand, who are so happy dealing with that kind of delivery. It will not be something they can do every time Valdés collects, because it will expend energy, but now and again they must push on tight and force him out of his comfort zone.
United, above all, must remain disciplined. Barcelona's tie with Real Madrid in the semis was always likely to be fractious given the antagonism between the two bitter rivals, but what those games proved is that, when the Catalans are not smooth and comfortable in their possession, they can quickly become irritated and lose their focus. In contrast, it is vital that United stay cool and do not risk a sending off, which would make their task even more daunting. Barça cherish the ball and love being in possession; United have to retain a full complement to confront them effectively.