Like most of the soccer world here in the US, both David Beckham and Thierry Henry will probably spend the early part of Saturday afternoon watching Manchester United face FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final.
It’s a special game for a lot of reasons: a rematch of the 2009 final (won 2-0 by Barça, and we’ll get to that in a few); a matchup of two teams beloved for their decades-long commitment to attacking, attractive soccer; and a contrast of styles between the quintessential British side vs. the quintessential Iberian team.
For Beckham and Henry, it will obviously mean a little more than it does for the rest of us. Henry was a part of that 2009 Barça team while Beckham was the star of the 1999 Champions League-winning Manchester United side.
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Things have obviously changed quite a bit — both personnel-wise and tactically — from the 1999 final, in which Beckham was one of the featured players.
For a brief refresher: United came into the match against Bayern Munich as the world’s darlings, on course for a treble (Premier League, FA Cup and Champs League titles), which would be Europe’s first since 1988, and just the fourth overall.
United were handicapped by the suspensions of typical central midfield pairing Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, forcing Beckham out of his usual right midfield spot and into a central partnership with Nicky Butt. (That central spot is where he’s now running the show for the LA Galaxy, after beginning 2011 on the right hand side of midfield.)
Bayern, who were on track for a treble of their own, didn’t like with the script. They counterattacked all game through a 5-4-1 with Lothar Matthäus sweeping behind a four-man back line — the last truly great side to effectively employ a sweeper.
The Germans went ahead early off a Mario Basler free kick, conceded possession throughout, and repeatedly carved up the Red Devils defense on lightning-fast counters. Only the crossbar and some shoddy finishing prevented the scoreline from ballooning to 3- or 4-nil heading into second-half stoppage.
That’s when Beckham put his stamp on the game. With 30 seconds of the three minutes allotted stoppage-time spent, he swung in a corner kick that rattled around the area before being stabbed home by Teddy Sherringham for the improbable equalizer.
Deflated and panicked, Bayern soon gave up another. This time, Sherringham nodded Beckham’s corner down for super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who stuck out a foot and roofed it past a stunned Munich defense.
It was (and still is) the most dramatic ending in Champions League history, overshadowing what was actually a pretty dire game. United’s 4-4-2 was static and predictable, and it was relegated to the trash bin of history by as early as 2001.
The 2009 final was a less dramatic but much better-played game. That particular Barcelona team were the best of recent vintage — the only side of the last three decades in contention, really, is the AC Milan squad of the late 1980s and early '90s.
Manchester United’s 2009 team, meanwhile, had a more continental flair and feel than the 1999 version. The generation of players that had “grown up together” in United’s youth set-up — Beckham included — were largely gone, and instead of a staid and British 4-4-2, Sir Alex Ferguson came out in a 4-5-1 with Cristiano Ronaldo as a false No. 9.
Henry, meanwhile, lined up in his typical spot at left-center forward (Rafa Márquez, who was part of that Barça team, didn’t feature in the 2009 final because of injury, but went the full 90 at central defense in Barça’s 2006 win over Henry and Arsenal).
Henry’s role throughout his time in Barcelona was to act as a bit of a counterweight to Lionel Messi on the right side and pull defenders away from the Argentine genius. He played it brilliantly in 2008-09, scoring 26 goals and adding 12 assists in 42 games across all competitions.
The real bit of trickery from Pep Guardiola for the final, though, was shifting Messi to a central role and pushing Samuel Eto’o out to the inside right — a swap that ended up confusing the United defense all day and causing left back Patrice Evra to frequently find himself taking up spots on the field usually reserved for the defensive midfielder. It's Messi's default position now, but at the time was an out-of-the-blue move United simply weren't prepared to deal with.
Henry’s involvement in the goals two years ago — Eto’o in the 10th minute and Messi in the 70th — was minimal, but his impact on the shape of the game was profound and something Barça have yet to replicate since that 2009 final.
The Frenchman’s speed both on and off the ball at the height of his powers was matched only by Messi and Ronaldo. He stretched the field, pinned back the right side of United’s defense, and was always a threat to score by drifting inside and unleashing a shot with his right foot. While he never really quite fit into the "Tika-Taka" Barça ethos, he gave more room to the guys who did: namely Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta — the three most influential players on that day two years ago.
That 2009 Barça team won every competition they turned out for — six in all. The 2011 version won’t equal that, and though they’re better in possession (expect them to have 60 percent or more), they’re not a better side overall.
The issue is that lack of speed up front. David Villa and Pedro, great as they are, cannot match Henry and Eto’o. And unlike the 2009 Barça, who had Yaya Touré patrolling either the midfield or anchoring the back line, the 2011 side can be physically dominated. Pepe showed as much in the Copa del Rey final.
Expect Ferguson to take a cue from that and start Darren Fletcher in the central midfield, even if he is at only 70 percent fitness. Whether that means dropping Michael Carrick or Ryan Giggs — probably Carrick — or switching to another formation entirely, we’ll find out Saturday.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.