As Sir Alex Ferguson stepped from the “carousel” in Rome, dizzy from a Barcelona performance that had stupefied his side, the Scot made a vow that his team would never be out-played in such a manner ever again.
A fortuitous goal from Samuel Eto’o and magnificent header from Lionel Messi was enough to end Man Utd’s European dream two years ago – but in truth it could and perhaps should have been more as the current Spanish title holders passed their way around, through and beyond United.
Now the boss says his men have their own history to make. United are a club that feels its history more than most – be it record league titles or disasters that threatened to rip the club apart – their drive has always come from a historical wrong that needed putting right.
But this is different. This is no 30 year old grievance that has been allowed to bed into the psyche of the club – many of the same players who took to the field in Rome will be present on the Wembley turf.
This is a fresh, open wound and not an old faded scar, and it was perhaps one of the darkest hours of Ferguson’s time in charge of United; and now he has the opportunity to snatch redemption.
A win could easily out-strip the 1999 Champions League final win; the record 19th league title is gone and forgotten now.
Barcelona represent the only obstacle to Ferguson’s legacy as the ultimate master; it is a problem that has been faced by Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho of late in European competition, and both men have come undone in the onslaught of Barca’s tiki-taka.
Wenger had his footballing philosophy torn up in front of him as comparisons between the two sides disappeared into the Catalonian air.
Mourinho was bought to Madrid as the man to chop Barca down to size with his reputation as the best coach in the world intact – four games against Pep Guardiola’s men later it was in tatters on the floor thanks to his bully-boy tactics and boorish press conferences.
Now Ferguson is the next man up the ramp to dangle his reputation from the end of a fishing pole with sharks waiting to tear it apart, and while it would be far from a disgrace if he were to fail, the world is his should he be able to halt the Barca machine.
It is rare that United enter a game as underdogs, even rarer that they get outplayed in front of a worldwide audience, and it is Barcelona who have inflicted both of these dubious honours. After the 2009 final Ferguson was adamant he knew how to stop their opponents on Saturday, insistent that his side had been to respectful to a side that were pulling them apart and that they were over-awed by the occasion.
Now he has the chance to put his theories to the test. He will hope and pray that Darren Fletcher will be fit for the final after missing the previous two; not only for sentimental reasons but for the exuberant approach the Scot brings to the United midfield and the pressure he can put Barca under when in possession.
If United are to win, they need to attack!
He will surely spurn the opportunity to sit back with a five man midfield with Rooney alone up front , and put Javier Hernandez up front with the former Everton man in the hope that the buds of their partnership that began to show in the closing stages of the Premier League will flourish into a full time love affair. This is no time for respect or to sit back.
And he will surely opt for Park Ji-Sung ahead of Nani in the hope that the South Korean has the defensive nous to smother the rampaging Dani Alves while enough attacking verve to take advantage of the Brazilian’s defensive slackness.
But most of all he will surely instil a belief in his men that they can win this game. Barcelona may have been heralded as one of the best teams of all times but Real Madrid were able to drag them down into the trenches to slug it out at times – and in that old British tradition, they don’t like it up ‘em.
Lionel Messi’s boots may be gracing the Wembley turf, but he is human; as he booted the ball into the fuming Madrid crowd in anger at being felled by Pepe during the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, the frustrations he must feel on a weekly basis ruptured through the surface.
United won’t be so crude as to kick him out of the game, nor can they afford to go chasing possession against Barca– a more fruitless task is unlikely to be found in football – but they will have to apply constant heavy pressure in the hope they can disrupt their rhythm while staying defensively strong.
The more disjointed a game the better for United, and with pace and guile both on the flanks and up-front Ferguson’s men can pounce.
They have a defensive advantage over their opponents having only conceded four goals in this year’s tournament compared to Barca’s eight, but they will have to stop a side who are averaging almost two and a half goals a game; something has got to give.
He will be aware of that he must have a plan to beat Barca. When Mourinho achieved just that in the semi-finals last year while in charge of Inter he proclaimed that the ball must bypass the midfield to frustrate Barca – a tactic Ferguson may employ with the predatory instincts of Hernandez and Rooney.
Ferguson has had two years’ worth of planning for 90 minutes on a Saturday evening in North London. He is on the verge of the defining moment in a spell with United that stretches back to 1986. He believes he has the answers and the firepower to launch Man Utd into the history books and stake a claim for the greatest moment in the history of a club that is littered with achievements. Saturday is his day of reckoning.
Written By Guest Writer, Pete South,Follow Him on Twitter.
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