In 2011, when Manchester United faced Barcelona at Wembley in our second Champions League final against them in three years, we believed that this time, in our own country, we could overpower them and win on our own terms. We were proved wrong.
By the time I came on for Michael Carrick with 13 minutes remaining the game was well and truly over. We had been outplayed. We had tried to take them on at their own game and they had broken us with that second goal from Lionel Messi not long after half-time.
I don’t see any alternative for Juventus. You try to beat this Barcelona team at their own game and, over the course of 10 games, you lose every time. Defend against them and then counter-attack, and perhaps you win once or twice in 10.
Those are the odds facing Juventus, a side I rate highly. When you have as many attacking, creative players as Juve do, when you’ve won your own domestic double, it is not a pleasant reality to have to face but it is one that you must accept if you are to have a chance of winning a final against Barcelona.
In 2008, over two semi-final legs, we did that. We matched them all over the pitch and kept our levels of concentration high. I managed to score the goal that won the tie. It can be done, and Juve have the defenders who can focus for 90 minutes.
The Juventus defence
My old team-mate Patrice Evra is playing his fifth Champions League final on Saturday, a great achievement. Pat is a warrior and a strong character who you want on your side. He never gives up.
And while facing Messi in his current form is a daunting task for anyone, the one thing you can be sure of with Pat is that he will not be overawed. Pat would tell us at United that he was from a very big family. He has 24 brothers and sisters, I believe. So he had to learn to hold his own from a young age and he does it very well.
Juve have great experience in that back four, even if Giorgio Chiellini has been ruled out and Andrea Barzagli is a doubt. If they had been fit, it would not have surprised me if the manager, Massimiliano Allegri, had opted to play three at the back with Chiellini and Barzagli alongside Leonardo Bonucci, as he did earlier in the season.
Pat struggled to get in the team then. He is much better suited to the orthodox four-man defence, and there will be a lot of pressure on Juve’s defence to get it right.
Naturally, much will be made of Pat playing against Luis Suarez again. What happened between the two was serious but I don’t see it as an issue for Pat any more. It’s over now.
I know that Pat will be desperate to win this European Cup, having lost in three of his previous four finals. The experience he and the two Italian centre-halves have will be crucial. Stephan Lichtsteiner will have to step up too. There is no greater test for a defence than Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not pay many opposition players the compliment of assigning them a man-marker, but he was prepared to make an exception for Andrea Pirlo. After we lost over two legs to Milan in the semi-final in 2007, the manager gave Park Ji-sung the job of marking Pirlo when we played them again in the second round of the Champions League in 2010.
I could have told Pirlo that he was in for a tough time because occasionally the manager told Park to man-mark me during training sessions. I hated it. Park was like a rubber man. Everywhere you went, he went too. He could run all day. I used to think of him as the manager’s loyal soldier. Sir Alex would give him precise instructions and he would follow them to the letter. I’m told Pirlo never forgot being marked by Park.
Pirlo presents an interesting challenge to Barcelona. Man-marking is just not their thing and yet, if you allow Pirlo time and space, he will destroy you. The current Barcelona team do not deny opposing teams possession to quite the same levels as the Pep Guardiola side, which means that Pirlo will have some of the ball. It depends what he can do when he gets it, but there is no one better than him at picking out the runs of team-mates.
Pirlo is a cool customer who does things in his own time. On the pitch he just looks so relaxed, no matter what is going on around him. He is one of those greats who looks like he could run a midfield with a glass of red wine in one hand. He needs the likes of Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez to make the runs for him but once they set off, they will know that the ball is coming.
Barcelona cannot afford to ignore Pirlo but making allowances for opposing players is not their style.
Barcelona's route to the Champions League final
Barcelona's route to the Champions League final
1/6 Group Stage
Barcelona 1 APOEL Nicosia 0 PSG 3 Barcelona 2 Barcelona 3 Ajax 1 Ajax 0 Barcelona 2 APOEL Nicosia 0 Barcelona 4 Barcelona 3 PSG 1 PTS: 15
2/6 Round of 16, 2nd leg: Barcelona 1 Man City 0 (agg: 3-1)
Sergio Aguero missed a second-half penalty for the visitors, which could have made it interesting, but in truth, Barcelona were never in doubt to progress, with Ivan Rakitic on target as Joe Hart made numerous saves.
3/6 Quarter-final, 1st leg: PSG 1 Barcelona 3
A sensational performance from Luis Suarez, where he completely dominated David Luiz on his way to two goals, made the second leg all but a formality for the Catalans.
4/6 Quarter-final, 1st leg: Barcelona 2 PSG 0 (agg: 5-1)
Neymar continued his exceptional second season for Barcelona and was on target twice, making sure of a semi-final appearance, and a return of Pep Guardiola to the Camp Nou.
5/6 Semi-final, 1st leg: Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0
Messi the magician ensured it would be a miserable return to the Camp Nou for Pep Guardiola. Messi scored two in three minutes, including a wonderful goal that inspired a thousand Jerome Boateng memes.
6/6 Semi-final, 2nd leg: Bayern Munich 3 Barcelona 2 (agg: 3-5)
The Germans never gave up the fight but two first-half Neymar goals meant it was smooth sailing for the visitors.
One of the two trophies in football, along with a European Championship, that Juventus’s Gianluigi Buffon does not have is a European Cup.
I am always loath to assign goalkeepers too much importance but you have to make an exception for the greats. Buffon is a presence on the pitch and obviously a big influence on his team-mates. They look at him and see someone who has done it all before and that will give them confidence.
Sometimes it is just as simple as the physical presence of a goalkeeper. Peter Schmeichel could make the goal look much smaller when you glanced up to hit a shot. Buffon does the same.
Marc-André Ter Stegen is a different kind of keeper, much smaller but with great feet – he could probably play as a centre-half in England. Buffon is Buffon, a reassuring presence for Juventus, in a game in which they are going to need all the reassurance they can get.
The star of the show
I think about the great players with whom I have shared a pitch: Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, Pirlo, Xavi, Cristiano Ronaldo – and the greatest of them all is Messi.
I watched him at the Mestalla against Valencia in November and he looked less than interested to me. Since then he has been sensational. His goalscoring record, in terms of goals to games, is a phenomenon.
But it is more than the goals, it is the games in which he scores them – the big games against the big teams, and he does it season in, season out. He does not go missing even when, as with the World Cup finals, he looked tired or is carrying an injury. There are lots of good footballers who can come up with the goods every now and then. Messi does it every week, under a weight of expectation greater than any other player in the game.
What makes a player like Messi attempt the incredible kind of run and shot that he scored with against Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish cup final? Well, first you need to know you can do it. Secondly, it is the confidence and belief of an in-form player. I have seen that kind of belief in team-mates and opponents over the years and it is a powerful force. Bad players can be confident too. When the truly great players are in that mood, they can be unstoppable.
Just as a final word on that goal: why on earth did none of those Bilbao players chop him down and take a yellow card? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching it as much as the next person, but I am astonished that none of them took emergency action faced with the best player in the world running through them.
Playing against Messi, as I’ve said before, is as tough a test of your concentration as any in football. At any moment he can take the mickey out of you. Physically it is demanding, but mentally even more so. You cannot switch off. The second you allow your mind to wander ... he is off, gone with the ball at his feet and flitting towards goals while your options are being reduced by the millisecond.
There is no defender in the world who can stop Messi every time. But every now and again a good defence has managed to do it for the space of a game, and Juventus have a good defence. The problem for them is that they also have Suarez and Neymar to think about, and that can be overwhelming.
For many of these Juventus defenders, this may well be their last chance of winning the Champions League. Losing a final can be a painful experience but in 2009 and 2011 I rationalised it this way: Barcelona were the best team in the world. You had to accept they were better than us, even at a club like United where the expectation is that you win every game. Juventus will have a plan to beat Barcelona and if that does not work then at least they can always tell themselves that they lost to the best.
The farewell to Xavi
Every footballer dreams of leaving the stage with a trophy. I was lucky enough to do it both times that I retired for United! I know that Xavi is not retiring but he is leaving the club of his life after Saturday for Al Sadd in Qatar. I hope he gets 20 minutes at the end if Barcelona are home and dry so he can enjoy the moment. Even so, his quality on the ball means that he would be an asset even if the game was still in the balance.
He is a clever player. In games against him I would think, “Right, I’m going to get close to him for 10 minutes”, but as soon as I got there he would be gone. He sees everything: team-mates, opponents, the shape of the game, and he sees it before anyone else. He will know that Barcelona will miss him but, as with all great clubs, he will also know that no one is indispensable.
With David Gill at Fifa there’s real hope for the future
It was the right decision for Sepp Blatter to step down as Fifa president, and I hope that Fifa can change now that he is going.
I know from experience that David Gill, whom I knew well at Manchester United, is a good man who can be relied upon. If David is the calibre of person who will be running Fifa in the future then I am sure it can clean up its act.
Time for me to take summer break and head for the gym
I have enjoyed my season as a columnist at The Independent and the feedback from readers has always been interesting. Thank you for getting in touch. I’m off on a summer break now – including the occasional trip to the gym to get ready for the Manchester United Legends matches – and back in the new season. Enjoy your summer. Or as much as you can with so little football to watch.
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