LONDON – Over the last two weeks Sir Alex Ferguson has watched a rerun of the 2009 Champions League final five or six times. Manchester United began the stronger in Rome but after Samuel Eto’o gave Barcelona the lead in the 10th minute, the Reds lost their impetus, rhythm and thrust.
Ferguson will have forensically examined what went wrong to ensure there is no repeat when the teams meet again in the final at Wembley on Saturday. Two years ago United, unusually, did not do itself justice and a far more evenly contested final can be expected this time.
The key, as ever, is how to stop Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi from weaving their magic spell. It is an almost impossible task, as is beating Barcelona whose record of conceding just 21 goals in winning the Primera Liga is proof that its underrated defense is as effective as its much lauded attack.
Ferguson looks set to select the team that beat Schalke 2-0 in Germany in the semifinal, first leg, hailed as one of its best displays in Europe by the United manager. It means Antonio Valencia gets the nod over United’s Player of the Year Nani on the right of a midfield, where the emphasis is as much on industry as invention with Wayne Rooney dropping back to help United smother the danger of Barca’s world class trio.
Easier said than done, of course.
Xavi, said Ferguson, “has never given the ball away in his life.”
Iniesta’s intelligence and ability to make incisive passing makes him a joy to watch while Messi is quite simply the best player on the planet (and any other planet).
United’s plan will be not to let Barca settle into its passing game with Park Ji Sung and Michael Carrick hustlers-in-chief. Barcelona plays without an orthodox striker with Messi, Pedro and David Villa dropping into midfield.
It is crucial that Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic follows Messi, in particular — Arsenal’s central defenders did this well in their victory over the Catalans at Emirates Stadium earlier this season.
This is the final most neutrals wanted, and with the cream of European football on display it is hard to see Wembley staging anything other than a truly memorable match. My heart says United but my head says Barcelona.
Man United: Van der Sar, Fabio, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez.
Barcelona: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Puyol, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Villa, Messi.
SIR ALEX FERGUSON would not have seen the irony in trying to ban a reporter who asked the Manchester United manager a question about Ryan Giggs, whose superinjunction was blown out of the water when MP John Hemmings used (or many feel, abused) parliamentary privilege in naming Ryan Giggs as the footballer at the center of a privacy row.
It was perfectly fair for Rob Harris of The Associated Press to ask Ferguson about Giggs ahead of the Champions League final. Ferguson reached, as he too often does, when a reporter upsets him by trying to ban him, but as UEFA is in charge of media matters this week the master banner did not get his way.
Journalists have been banned from Old Trafford for simply criticizing United. Ferguson, who detests the Football Association for restricting his right to free speech when talking about referees, does not give the media the freedom he yearns. No wonder an experienced Ferguson observer called him a one-man Politburo this week.
Ferguson has not spoken to the BBC for seven years, after a documentary questioned the work of his son, Jason, as an agent, though there was no legal case against the corporation. You don’t even need to be inaccurate to be banned from United, merely asking the wrong question or writing something perceived as unfair is enough to earn a red card.
If those in charge of parliament adopted the same guidelines, most reporters who cover politics would not be able to set foot in the House of Commons.
FAREWELL, THEN, to Avram Grant and Carlo Ancelotti, fired by West Ham and Chelsea, respectively, for being failures. Grant can have few arguments after West Ham’s relegation, most except the club’s owners thought he was the wrong appointment last summer, and so it proved.
Ancelotti’s dismissal leaves Roman Abramovich looking for his seventh manager in eight years, yet not a single person at Stamford Bridge would dare challenge a man whose reaction to being questioned is usually to dismiss the person concerned. The ax factor hangs over everyone at Abramovich’s club.
Ancelotti became the first Chelsea manager to win the double last season. This time around the Blues finished second, which was “below expectations.” At least his successor knows where he stands.
Abramovich had paid out around £40 million in compensation to Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and now Ancelotti.
Does he not cast an eye toward Manchester United and realize that stability brings long-term success, not a hair trigger?
The Italian was popular with the players, supporters, other managers and the media – no mean feat. Yet Abramovich believes someone, somewhere can do a better job for Chelsea, which puts him in a minority of one.
Guus Hiddink, caretaker manager for three months in 2009 is the favorite, possibly to return as director of football with Marco van Basten the coach.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.