Lee Dixon: If Rooney can rise to the occasion and be United's Messi, they have a chance

The Weekend Dossier
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The focus this week has been so much on the strengths of Barcelona, of just how good Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, David Villa and Xavi are, that talking about Manchester United's attacking prowess has almost been an afterthought.

Click HERE to upload graphic: My Guide to Beating Barcelona (179.65kb)

While it is quite right to bang on about the collective brilliance of Barcelona's attack, there is a real danger that an injustice is being done to United and their ability to destroy teams.

I cannot think of a better team than the current Barcelona side. There is no question that they are absolutely top-drawer. But it would be foolish to underestimate the firepower of Manchester United, and particularly the influence of Wayne Rooney.

I am pretty sure Rooney will look around him today, see the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta and want desperately to show that he belongs in that exalted company. Rooney has had a mixed 12 months. He had a terrible time at the World Cup, when he looked a troubled young man on the pitch, unable to put whatever was happening in his private life to one side.

Then there was the debacle of his contract renewal, when he initially said he wanted to leave before changing his mind. That now looks like being the signing of the season, because since then United have gone on to pick up their 19th title and Rooney has been at the heart of it.

Now it seems the stage is set for him, and he could either finish on a major high or as a huge flop. Rooney is sure to be really fired up for the occasion, and much depends on how he performs at Wembley tonight, because United's attacking play relies heavily on him.

First of all, United have to have a game plan for how to play when they don't have the ball. Barcelona usually dominate possession no matter who they are playing, so that is likely to be the case again tonight. The main threat of course is Messi but I don't think Sir Alex Ferguson will want to designate one player to man-mark him. That can be dangerous because Messi is so good he is sure to beat that man with a piece of skill and then you are in trouble.

I can't really say he is the best player ever, as I didn't see Pele or Diego Maradona play live. I can say, however, that Messi is the best that I have ever laid eyes on. I have certainly not seen anyone better in my lifetime.

I think it is better that players all have their specific jobs in specific areas of the pitch when Barcelona have the ball. United's midfield players have to drop back to try and stop Messi getting the ball. When he gets it, someone has to get tight and try to get a touch on the ball.

Pedro and David Villa like to make diagonal runs inside from the wing, which drag full-backs inside, close to the centre-backs. As a full- back, you can't afford to go with your man because you may have to cover a runner from midfield or a run from the opposition full-back. So everyone has to know their job, and when to go for the man on the ball and when to leave him for someone else.

It depends whether Sir Alex wants to match up three v three in midfield, in which case he could pick Darren Fletcher in place of Javier Hernandez, or he might think "We are Man United and we can hurt Barcelona" and go for a more attacking formation. It is an intriguing decision, bearing in mind what happened two years ago, when Barcelona won comfortably.

I do think that Barcelona are vulnerable on the counterattack. They press high up the pitch and try to win the ball back as quickly as possible. It's something we did under George Graham at Arsenal, closing down in numbers really early in the same area you lost the ball, hunting in a pack.

If United can pass their way through that first phase, Barcelona would be opened up and when the full-backs push up, there is space behind them for the likes of Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia to exploit.

Those two will have an awful lot of work to do tonight, because they will basically be playing like wing- backs, helping out the defence but then moving forward whenever United have the ball. I've played that position and it's hugely tiring. But, in Park and Valencia, United have two players who will run all day.

Rooney will also have to do a tremendous amount of work. If Sir Alex goes with Hernandez up front, then Rooney will play much deeper, and will have to help out in midfield to ensure United are not outnumbered, which is not playing to Rooney's strengths.

Sometimes teams play as if they are scared of the Barcelona midfield, which is understandable given the way they play. When you do that, there is a danger you will drop off and play deeper, nearer your own goal. It's a natural human reaction to want to be closer to the goal, to protect it. But really it would be better to push up and to squeeze the space on the pitch. The danger if you do that is that you might be liable to being hit by a ball played over the top but that is not generally the way Barcelona play.

I have a feeling that Fletcher will start in a five-man midfield, which would mean Rooney playing up front on his own. That would allow United to match Barcelona's three-man midfield of Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets with their own three, of Fletcher, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. The Barcelona trio love to play their intricate passing triangles, with Messi dropping deeper, and Villa and Pedro also coming in off the flanks. At times they seem to have more men in midfield than is possible.

For that reason, I would like to see Fletcher start, so that you don't allow Barcelona to find their rhythm. Such a move would certainly detract from United's attacking threat but you still have Hernandez on the bench. Rooney would have to change position, leading down the middle instead of dropping deep off Hernandez, but it is a job he has done before.

Rooney is the key figure today. He is the man that before the game the others in the dressing room will be looking to. Before a massive game like this, players will have moments of insecurity and doubt, and at that moment it helps to be able to look around the dressing room and see a world-class player on your side.

At Arsenal I had Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. At United now, it is Rooney. Players will look at him and think: "We have our own Messi." The impetus will be on Rooney to deliver the goods in what could be a defining moment for him. If he does, then United have a chance.

Time for an Englishman to take over at the Bridge

It was no surprise that Carlo Ancelotti was sacked. He probably knew at the start of the season that would be the case if he didn't deliver the Champions League in May. Some Chelsea fans have accused him of being too laid back but I think he was just realistic.

He made a few mistakes this season, like anyone, and perhaps should have stuck up more for Ray Wilkins when his assistant was sacked in October.

Chelsea need to appoint a new manager before they can make any decisions about players, coming and going. Guus Hiddink has history at the club but it remains to be seen whether he still wants all the hassle that comes with day-to-day management.

There have been some big bets on Harry Redknapp of late, and he would certainly know how to deal with the egos in the Chelsea dressing room. It would be great to see an English manager land one of the biggest jobs in the country. I, for one, would love to see an English manager lift the Premier League title – but will it be Harry Redknapp at Chelsea? I'm not so sure about that.

Five Asides

1. Jack shouldn't go back to the England U21 school

I'm happy Jack Wilshere is not going to play for England Under-21s this summer. If you have stepped up to the first team, you shouldn't be in the Under-21s again. It is a way of schooling players for the England team, so someone else should go. People are moaning that he will then go on Arsenal's pre-season tour to Malaysia in July but it is a completely different thing. He will have had a month off, and they will be low intensity games.

2. Touré did take banned drug, but he's no cheat

It seemed harsh to me to give Kolo Touré a six-month ban for taking a slimming aid, but I do understand that you have to take a stand. I know Kolo well and there is no way he is a drugs cheat. He just should have checked what he was taking with one of the club doctors. Harsh, but fair.

3. Fair-play qualification? That is just ridiculous

Giving Fulham a place in the Europa League next season through the Fair Play League is ridiculous. Nothing against Fulham, but it belittles the tournament to have teams who did not earn their way in. What next? Nicest-looking kit?

4. Not a glamour tie, but should be a good final

The Championship play-off final between Swansea City and Reading may not involve the most glamorous of clubs in that division, but they are good footballing teams, nonetheless, which should make it a great game.

5. I need a break from all the excitement, thanks

It's been the most exciting season for years, but it's time for a break. Thanks for reading and see you in August.