The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o's opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.
United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.
But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.
Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.
Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward.
Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.
Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.
But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.
And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?
Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.