When Sir Alex Ferguson delivered his now infamous Pacino-esque half-time eulogy deep in the bowel’s of Camp Nou’s ‘home’ dressing room during the 1999 final, he told his startled players that six feet may be the closest they ever got to ‘ol big ears, the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens. As startlingly brilliant his 1999 breed could be they only ever made on final, famously winning in injury time.
By contrast Ferguson’s current generation faces their third showpiece in four years. The final of Europe’s Premier Competition no longer a rarity but, incredibly, now habitual. No more so for his 2011 generation, a team reportedly among the Scot’s very worst in 25 years at Old Trafford. How the team has made a mockery of that prediction this season.
It is this sense of over-achievement – the underdog spirit if you will – that has seemingly reduced the pressure on Ferguson’s men ahead of Saturday night’s Wembley final. Win or lose, United has never been favourite, perhaps even among the club’s own fans, to lift this year’s Champions League trophy.
Yet Ferguson, often to the media’s audible derision, has always backed his charges to come good this season. It is, according to many pundits, a team without “stardust”. Not so says the Scot, who firmly believes his players hold the ability and temperament to beat the team many regard as history’s best, on United’s ‘home’ soil.
“We have players who will all like this stage,” Ferguson said on Friday.
“In terms of Rooney’s progress in Europe, he is much more mature than he was in 2009. And others too. The experience of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic is vital. Our experience, and our progress in Europe this season, gives us a good chance.
“Barcelona have fantastic qualities but I think our qualities will show through as well, which could make it a really good game. We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. We maybe made one or two mistakes last time, but not this time. We were disappointed we lost the game but it isn’t a matter of revenge, it is about our own personal pride.”
That preparation has included a two week period in which the Premier League was won but Ferguson did not allow the intensity of focus to drop. Indeed, the manager’s stronger-than-expected line-up against Blackpool last week belied an understanding that too many players were undercooked when United lost to Barcelona in 2009.
And while Ferguson’s line-up will surprise few, the manager has promised a fresh tactical outlook having been out-thought by Pep Guardiola’s men in Rome. Pre-eminent in Ferguson’s mind is a nagging feeling that United failed to give a true account of itself in the Italian capital, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez a glittering array of attacking talent that failed to spark
“We did most of the work before the Blackpool game [last Sunday] – and winning the league the previous week helped us that way,” added the 69-year-old Scot.
“The players have to trust themselves and trust each other because I trust them. I know they’ll do the job right. This team has unity and our record in Europe this year is good. We’re used to playing in Europe, we have that experience and we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved this year in Europe.
“There could be a lot of excitement, there’ll be a lot of good football. We recognise the quality of our opponents: it’s unwise to go into a game not preparing for how your opponents play, their strengths and weaknesses.”
Much will depend on whether United can retain enough of the ball to hurt Barcelona, whose ability to dominate games has, if anything, increased in the two years since these sides last met. The Catalan giants have managed more than 70 per cent possession on average this season, meaning United will almost certainly be on the back foot most of the night.
Yet, it is easy to forget United’s positive start in Rome, where Park Ji-Sung would surely have scored in the opening seconds but for former Red Gerard Piqué’s last-ditch tackle. It is that positive outlook that Ferguson has instilled in his troops over the past fortnight.
This should reflect in the Scot’s team, whose natural instincts against big European opposition is to pack midfield. However, with Darren Fletcher unlikely to make the United 18-man squad, let alone the starting team, Ferguson’s hand is somewhat forced. Wayne Rooney is likely to partner Javier Hernández in attack, with the former Evertonian dropping deep into midfield when needed.
With Ferguson’s selection dilemma solved, the rest of the Scot’s team almost picks itself. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will form the heart of United’s midfield; Antonio Valencia will edge out Nani for the right-wing berth; Fabio da Silva is expected to play at right-back ahead of his brother Rafael.
Tactically Ferguson’s team has worked on pressing high up the pitch where United will attempt to cut of the supply to Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Lionel Messi by suffocating Barça’s ‘starters’ – Piqué and Sergio Busquets.
It is a tactical flexibility that owes much to Ferguson’s respect for Guardiola. While the men are no friends – Ferguson retains far more affection for José Mourinho – the elder man recognises the outstanding team Guardiola has built.
“For a young coach, he’s changed the way they play and brought a maturity to the team,” Ferguson said of the 40-year-old coach.
“From beating us in Rome to the present day, you can see that maturity. He’s changed the way they press the ball; for a young coach he’s done fantastically well and has a good presence. He played for Barcelona, which helps, and with the history of Dutch coaches there, he’s made a big step forward for Spanish coaches.”
Meanwhile, Guardiola has few selection worries save for left-back where captain Carles Puyol is expected to play out of position. Eric Abidal, now fit after undergoing surgery for a kidney tumour, is not thought to be match-ready, while Maxwell is out-of-favour. The selection may offer United a glimmer of hope, especially after Antonio Valencia’s outstanding performance against Ashley Cole in the recent victory over Chelsea.
Yet, if that sentiment is essentially pessimistic in tone then Ferguson is having none of it: “We have a great chance. We always focus on what we can do ourselves and we hope to attack – we have players who can do that.”
It’s a belief that few fans – United or otherwise – would be wise to bet against in this most unpredictable of campaigns.
Champions League Final. Wembley, London. 7.45pm, 28 May 2011.
Barcelona – 433 – Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Villa. Subs from: Bojan, Jeffrén, Keita, Milito, Maxwell, Afellay, Adriano, Abidal, Fontàs, Olazábal.
United – 4411 – van der Sar; Fabio da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Gibson, Owen, O’Shea, Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, Kuszazck, OShea, Fletcher.
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Assistant referees: Gabor Erös, György Ring
Additional assistant referees: Mihaly Fabian, Tamás Bognar
Fourth official: Istvan Vad
Barcelona – WDWDDW
United – WLWWWW