The Champions League trophy FC Barcelona’s players raised just a few months ago sat on the stage behind stars Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Pique during a news conference on Thursday, the gleaming prize from the last time their team met Manchester United.
On Saturday, Barcelona will step onto the field against United for the first time since that victory in May. And though the opponent will be the same and the teams will be performing in front of a sizable crowd at FedEx Field, little else will feel similar to that confrontation.
Then, the goal was singular: To capture the biggest prize in European club soccer and — anecdotally, at least — the title of “best club team in the world.”
This weekend, both teams must balance multiple needs in an exhibition game far from home — a desire to prepare for their own seasons and provide experience to young players, yet meet the ever-present demand to earn a win.
“Champions League final is the Champions League final, Saturday will be a friendly game,” Manchester United defender Patrice Evra said. “But for Manchester United it’s never a friendly game — you have to win every game, you have to respect the shirt when you play and you have to win.”
Barcelona cemented its status as the world’s top team — some say the best club team in history — in late May with a commanding 3-1 victory in the final of the Champions League, a competition among Europe’s top professional teams. The game was the culmination of a monstrous season for Barcelona, and for its star, Lionel Messi.
Messi, considered the world’s best player, will not play on Saturday as he remains on vacation after playing for Argentina in the Copa America. Other players involved in the Copa America also will not play: Brazil’s Dani Alves and Adriano Correia, newly acquired Chilean wing Alexis Sanchez and Argentina’s Javier Mascherano and Gabriel Milito.
Manchester United will be without injured stars Javier Hernandez, who suffered a concussion in training on Tuesday, and Antonio Valencia, who injured his ankle in the Copa America playing for Ecuador.
But many of the stars who met in May will play at FedEx Field, including Barcelona’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta and United’s Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic. And while there will be little at stake, players insisted that there remains a desire to win.
“We were lucky to win the championship this year and I think we did have a good game and we deserved to win it, but the difference between us and Manchester United is so small that for example on Saturday maybe they can win also,” said Pique, who played three seasons for Manchester United. “So I think we have to give everything we have and try to be as fit as possible and compete well and compete against them and have a good game.”
A friendly thus presents difficult challenges for both managers, as they must decide whether to play starters and focus on a result, or give an opportunity to the younger players they brought. Each manager will likely wait for an indication from the other before deciding which direction to take.
Manchester United Coach Alex Ferguson indicated he would play his young players if Barcelona did the same and that “it’d be a fascinating game.” But in the same breath, Ferguson acknowledged the true goal Manchester United faces as it embarks upon its season — one that could begin with a strong result Saturday in Landover.
“I think the performances and feats over the last two, three years has elevated [Barcelona] in everyone’s mind as the best team in the world,” Ferguson said. “And I’m quite happy to be second place in this moment in time because that’s our challenge. Our challenge will be to get to that level.”