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Manchester United vs. Barcelona: Breaking down the dream final

SI.com's Gabriele Marcotti breaks down Wednesday's Champions League final matchup between Manchester United and FC Barcelona (ESPN, 2:30 p.m. ET).

When three-quarters of your starting back four are sidelined, you know things aren't looking good. But that's the reality facing Pep Guardiola, who'll be without Rafa Márquez, Daniel Alves and Éric Abidal (not to mention GabiMilito, who has been out all year). Gerard Piqué has stepped it up since moving back to the Camp Nou this summer and will be ready to go against his former club.

Yaya Touré is a beast, but there is no escaping the fact that he'll be out of position at the heart of the defense, while whoever plays left back -- whether it's rarely used 35-year-old Sylvinho or the inexperienced Martín Cáceres -- looks badly overmatched. Carles Puyol, back at right back after his suspension in the semifinal second leg, will need to do his usual guts-and-glory routine to keep this makeshift group functioning. Goalkeeper Víctor Valdés, seen by some as a weak link, has been improving quietly and may be one of the game's top 10.

On the other side of the ball, Sir Alex Ferguson has liked the 4-3-3 in Champions League play with Cristiano Ronaldo reinvented as a center forward, Wayne Rooney on the left and Park Ji-Sung wide right. It has worked well: Ronaldo is peaking, Rooney's work rate on the wing is outstanding and Park is very dependable. Yet in a match like this, conventional wisdom would call for a guy like Dimitar Berbatov (who has blown hot and cold, despite being United's record signing) or possibly Carlos Tévez. Either way, United has plenty of options and a distinct advantage in this department.

Edge: Man. United.

With Touré switched to the back four and Andrés Iniesta not fully fit, Xavi will need to have a huge game. On his day, he can dominate with guile and accuracy (as can Iniesta, for that matter). The question is whether they'll be outmuscled by the opposition and, given Iniesta's lack of fitness, it's a legitimate issue. Rounding out the three (and replacing Touré as the enforcer) is SergiBusquets, who, at 20, has been a revelation this season. If his nerves don't play up, he should be OK. He has the strength, intelligence and defensive prowess to let the skill players do their thing.

Darren Fletcher's suspension made headlines, but, in fact, Michael Carrick would have been a bigger loss. The former Tottenham and West Ham midfielder has been a human metronome in the middle of the park, making up for a lack of quickness with guile and strength while providing the kind of steady, reliable passing the front players crave. Anderson's progress has perhaps been slower than expected, but he brings energy and a forward threat. Paul Scholes, at 34, has lost a step, but his experience should see him through.

Edge: Barça, but only slightly.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that Lionel Messi (37 goals in 50 games), Samuel Eto'o (34 in 50) and Thierry Henry (26 in 41) have scored an outrageous 97 goals between them this season. It may well be the greatest front three in history. The question marks here come from Henry's fitness (he hasn't played in 3½ weeks) and whether Messi is played through the middle (which could isolate Eto'o out wide and negate any kind of aerial threat) or on the right (where he wouldn't have Dani Alves behind him, possibly negating his effectiveness). Still, Barça is absolutely loaded in this department.

Man. United enjoyed a long stretch of clean sheets and credit must go to Edwin van der Sar. The big Dutchman was one of the best in the world for the best part of the past two decades, yet, at 38, he also occasionally shows the signs of age. Nemanja Vidic was dominant in the first half of the season, now he has slowed a little, whereas Rio Ferdinand (who ordinarily complements him beautifully) is recovering from a calf injury and may not be at his best. PatriceEvra hasn't been as effective as he was last season (when, arguably, he was one of the top three left backs in the world) but he remains solid. At right back, likely starter John O'Shea is a jack-of-all-trades who makes up for a lack of natural athleticism with drive and intelligence.

Edge: Barça.

Barça is already stretched at the back and options are few and far between. Seydou Keita really is an attacking midfielder but, if pressed into action, will probably have to reinvent himself in a different position. Alexander Hleb has shown little this season, Eidur Gudjohnsen is on the wane and Bojan Krkic is still just a teenager (and a very undersized one at that).

So many options for United. Berbatov and Tévez would start on most teams, Ryan Giggs provides experience and brains, whether in the middle or out wide, Johnny Evans has been a hit at the back, as has Rafael. Nani was a bust this year, but it doesn't really matter when you have so many alternatives to choose from.

Edge: Man. United.

Taking charge of a club like Barcelona in your first season as a manager would have scared the pants off most men. Not Guardiola. He found a way to put together a well-balanced attacking side, helping guys like Eto'o and Henry not just coexist but thrive. Yet experience matters, and having been here as a player just isn't the same thing.

Sir Alex is a living legend who has rewritten the record books and enters his third Champions League final. His greatest asset may be his pragmatism: He has rebuilt and torn down United at least three times in his 23 years in charge, each time emerging stronger than before. And he can beat you in so many different ways.

Edge: Man. United.

Nobody has successfully defended the European Cup since AC Milan in the late 1980s, which doesn't bode too well for United. Logic (and Barcelona's absentees) should make Ferguson's crew favorites, and yet it looks too close to call. The fact that Messi is due a big game on the biggest stage of all just tips this one toward Barça.

Edge: Barça, slightly.

Barcelona

1. Get the strikers (particularly Henry and Messi, as Eto'o always runs his butt off anyway) to work hard and press United in its own half when you don't have possession.

2. You have an edge in tight spaces; use it. This means push the back four up and congest the middle. Xavi, Messi and Iniesta can thread the needle with the best of them.

3. Don't get sucked forward. United is devastating on the break and, if it sits back, you'll be tempted to bomb on. If you do, keep your shape at the back or you'll pay a hefty price.

Manchester United

1. You have an enormous edge on set-pieces. Ronaldo, Vidic, Ferdinand, O'Shea, Rooney -- there is no way Barça can pick up everybody on corners and free kicks. Make sure you exploit this.

2. Don't raise the barricades. In last year's semifinal against this same team, you went ultra-defensive. You may be tempted to do so because it worked for Chelsea in this year's semis (at least to some degree). But this would be a mistake. You're not built to play that way and, besides, if you go a goal down, it will be that much harder to react.

3. Get physical. Not dirty, just physical. Henry will be hobbling anyway. Xavi and Iniesta don't measure up physically with your midfielders. Messi can be rattled, too. Just make sure you keep your discipline.

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