For those Manchester United fans who love the symmetry that can be found in history, here’s a reassuring fact going into the 2011 Uefa Champions League final against Barcelona. English clubs have vanquished Spanish foe in European finals in ‘71, ‘81, ‘91 and ‘01. What’s this year again?
By Henry Winter
The sequence commenced with Chelsea overcoming Real Madrid 2-1 in the 1971 Cup-Winners’ Cup replay. Fast forward a decade and Alan Kennedy was charging into the box to give Liverpool a 1-0 European Cup victory over Real Madrid.
In 1991, Mark Hughes’s pyrotechnics helped United to a 2-1 win over Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup.
After the turning of another decade, Liverpool’s golden goal delivered a 5-4 Uefa Cup success over Alaves.
And so to 2011. For all the comfort offered by the past, Sir Alex Ferguson’s players know they face the ultimate test of character, stamina and technique when facing up to Pep Guardiola’s team of all the talents on Saturday.
Whatever occurs, and Barcelona are understandable favourites, the final will be a celebration of proper footballing principles: driving forward endlessly not parking the bus, nurturing stars as well as buying them.
The philosophies of United and Barcelona should be cherished. The watching world should look and learn.
Saturday will undoubtedly also be a reminder that Mammon has invaded a sport. Uefa’s footballing showpiece will be the greatest money-spinning game of all time, a bonanza pay-out for hoteliers and jubilant touts hawking round tickets for £3,000 upward.
This is capitalism with shin-pads, the ultimate in corporate junkets, with Qataris and Glazers in the background.
Fortunately for the future of football, the game involves two clubs who retain a soul, who understand that football is a sport as well as a business.
When Ferguson and Guardiola emerge from the tunnels, they will be standard-bearers for much that is good about the game.
United and Barcelona are sure to be on their best behaviour at Wembley, particularly with so many tuning in, but it needs acknowledging that both sides do harbour inelegant traits.
United still have that vexing propensity to surround and hound officials.
Barcelona are not averse to theatricals, and boast the tumble twins in Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets. As one English mischief-maker posted on a Barcelona supporters’ website: “Is it true that Barca are trying to sign Tom Daley?”
The Catalans’ myriad positives far outweigh the negatives. Ditto United.
For all the offensive intrusions of the Glazer regime, the price hikes and embarrassment over debts, not forgetting the Americans’ patent lack of affinity with the sport, United remain strong as a sporting entity.
Old Trafford will always be a dressing-room with a megastore attached, not the other way round. Football is foremost.
The club have healthy roots in the community, as anybody who has witnessed the excellent work of the Manchester United Foundation will concur.
Ferguson’s likely lads are a celebration of footballing virtues.
Edwin van der Sar goes out at the pinnacle of his profession, his love of the game having kept him chasing trophies for more than two decades.
Top keeper, top man. Thanks for all the memories, Edwin. Then look at Ferguson’s back-line, expected to be Fabio, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. All play the game the right way; even an old-school stopper like Vidic plunders the occasional goal from corners.
That winning blend of creativity and industry can be found in all four members of Ferguson’s midfield. Antonio Valencia distills the game to its purest: one-on-one.
The Ecuadorean winger loves taking on left-backs, leaving them for dead, reaching the line and picking out a team-mate. Over on the left, Ji-Sung Park should tuck in and ambush Barcelona’s relentlessly rolling supply wagons.
The incredible Seoul dynamo gives everything, and also exudes strong sporting qualities. Park was even used by the Premier League in a Respect campaign earlier this season.
In the centre, the ageless, enduringly inventive Ryan Giggs highlights the power of dedication to his craft.
Much of the Wembley spotlight will fall on Michael Carrick. The amiable Geordie has shown over the past few months, particularly against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, that he does possess the personality to dominate games.
Carrick has always had the skills, the range of passing, but now such gifts are being more consistently applied.
I once asked him whether he was too nice to be an elite-level midfielder shredding opponents week in, week out, season in, season out a la Roy Keane.
He smiled and replied that it was possible to be genial and driven. If he presses the life out of Barcelona, and releases Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández then Carrick’s status deserves to be updated to heavyweight.
United’s commitment to the bountiful game is thrillingly expressed further forward. Rooney plays to perfection the cultivated conduit between midfield and attack.
He creates chances and scores, maturing into a world-class No 10 with No 9 capabilities, a mix of Sheringham and Shearer, a one-man SAS.
Hernández patently relishes playing with Rooney, running on to all those clever passes, scoring for fun. There is a joy to Hernández’s play, a love of the art of putting the ball in the net.
The Mexican’s smile lights up the game. More players should follow his example.
Other clubs should examine the Hernández move. He’s a reminder of the importance of scouting, a gem who cost United only £8 million. On current form, Hernández might even get in Barcelona’s fabled team (for a below-par David Villa).
A noisy neighbour of United’s has some advice for Hernández and Rooney. Go for it. Don’t be afraid to impose yourselves.
“If you sit back against Barcelona and let them pile on the pressure they will score against you,’’ says David Silva, Manchester City’s former Valencia attacker. “So you have to try and go out and score against them.”
Hernández and Rooney will need little urging. The United way is to attack, attack and attack again.
Like United, Barcelona are a team as well as a brand. When they step on the field, they espouse the ideal of football as an art-form.
Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta make schoolboys fall in love with the game. They promote the qualities of touch, vision and ceaseless application.
Humility too. For all the theatricals of Busquets and Alves, there is an impressive modesty to this class act of a team from Camp Nou.
The tone is set by Guardiola, a coach always keen to salute the foundations put in by Johan Cruyff, particularly in the “Dream Team” of Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov, and Guardiola himself.
It seems only yesterday that Stoichkov and Jose Mari Bakero were teeing up a free-kick for Ronald Koeman to win the European Cup at Wembley.
That was 19 years ago but the legacy lives on. “The Dream Team were pioneers and we cannot compete with that no matter how many trophies we win,’’ reflected Guardiola. Too modest. Two good teams engage at Wembley.
Roll on the Dream final in the year that ends in ‘1’