WFC Preview: Barça-Man United renew heavyweight rivalry

WASHINGTON — The most anticipated match of the entire European soccer preseason will take place on Saturday at a sold-out FedEx Field in Landover, Md., as English Premier League champions Manchester United and Spanish La Liga winners FC Barcelona meet in a rematch of the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League final.

The Catalan giants triumphed 3-1 on that day at Wembley Stadium in London thanks to goals goals from Pedro, Lionel Messi and David Villa. It was their third European championship overall and second Champions League victory over United in the last three years.

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In the aftermath of that dominating performance, many observers called the 2010-11 Barcelona side one of the best ever.

“I think their performances and their feats over the last two to three years have elevated them in everyone’s mind that they’re the best team currently in the world and I’m quite happy to be second place at this moment in time,” United manager Sir Alex Ferguson admitted on Thursday. “Our challenge will be to get to that level.”

While the Red Devils will be wrapping up their participation in the Herbalife World Football Challenge, during which they scored dominating wins over three MLS sides and the MLS All-Star team, Barcelona will be just kicking off a US tour. They will also face two Mexican powers, Chivas Guadalajara and Club América, in Miami and Dallas, respectively.

Both Manchester United and Barça begin their competitive seasons in short order. Manchester United take on crosstown rivals Manchester City in the Charity Shield on August 7, while Barcelona meet eternal foes Real Madrid in the first leg of the Spanish Supercopa on August 14.

FC Barcelona

While the attention during this offseason has revolved around the pursuit of Arsenal captain Cesc Fàbregas and the acquisition of Chilean star Alexis Sánchez, the defending European champs don’t fool around when it comes to preseason.

The match against the Red Devils will be their fourth of the preseason after they defeated German powers Bayern Munich (2-0) and tied Brazilian side Internacional (2-2) and tough Croatian side Hajduk Split (0-0).

Manager Josep “Pep” Guardiola has yet to put out his first XI. Veterans Gerard Piqué, Xavi and Carles Puyol have yet to see any action. In fact, Xavi will only participate in his first full training session of the preseason on Friday.

The club is also playing without any South Americans who played in the recently concluded Copa América.

But many of Barcelona’s young homegrown back-ups have filled in capably, including Mexican midfielder Jonathan dos Santos and Spaniard Thiago Alcántara. Even Manchester United’s Ferguson has taken notice.

“They played Bayern Munich [Wednesday] and played all the young players and beat Bayern 2-0 in the final and were fantastic,” Ferguson said on Thursday. “If I thought they would play all the young players on Saturday, I would play all my young players and it would be a fascinating game.”

Manchester United

The Red Devils have rolled through MLS opposition thus far by a total combined score line of 18-2, and Ferguson has been able to roll out new acquisitions Phil Jones, David de Gea and Ashley Young in the process. Meanwhile, his younger players have made strong bids for more playing time, with Gabriel Obertan, Federico Macheda and Danny Welbeck chief among them.

Although transfer speculation still surrounds veteran forward Dimitar Berbatov, a concussion suffered this week by star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández has signified more minutes for Berbatov alongside attacking stalwart Wayne Rooney.

Club standard-bearer Ryan Giggs, who did not see any minutes in the 4-0 win over the MLS All-Stars on Wednesday, could get the call on Saturday. The 37-year-old’s skills on the ball would prove useful in United’s bid to counter the Barcelona passing game.

Against the All-Stars, Sir Alex unleashed his strongest first XI of the club’s US tour, and gave them a full 60 minutes. The only change from that lineup could be at right back, where Rafael da Silva, who played just 17 minutes in the All-Star Game, is expected to regain his spot following the MLS All-Star Game experiment that saw Jones fill the role.

Key Players

FC Barcelona: Thiago Alcántara

If you did not tune in to the Audi Cup matches from Germany, you missed a sneak peek at the latest great talent to emerge from the Barcelona youth system. The 20-year-old, Italian-born son of former Brazilian midfielder Mazinho has been in the Barcelona system since he was 14 and his star rose in Munich, where he notched three goals in two matches. The Spanish Under-21 international’s vision, skill, change of pace and finishing ability indicate that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta may already have a potential successor.

Manchester United: Michael Carrick

A fixture in central midfield for the Red Devils, his contribution will be critical as Manchester United aim to wrest control of the possession game away from the team that holds the ball better than any in the world. Although he’s expected to be more active in a defensive role, his ability to keep the ball moving for his team will be paramount if United are to earn a result.