James Lawton: Schmeichel making up fairytales with comparisons to United's treble winners
IF ANYONE is entitled to talk up Manchester United's chances against Real Madrid tonight it is surely Peter Schmeichel. His enduring passion and partiality for the cause are an inevitable and eminently forgivable consequence of the glory to which he contributed so profoundly through the eight years before the historic treble of 1999.
When he lifted the Champions League trophy in the Nou Camp, in the absence of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, he symbolised perfectly the meaning of his team.
He was as impassioned as his boss, Alex Ferguson, and he was also never known to admit to a mistake. There were a few over the years but too few to mention, certainly by him.
Schmeichel was no doubt among the greatest goalkeepers we have ever seen and his magnificently defiant performance was exceeded only by the extent of his belief in both himself and his team.
Remember all that one-eyed but ultimately justified conviction?
It has not been so difficult to do that listening to him before his former club's encounter with a Real Madrid threatening another masterpiece of counter-attack at Old Trafford in a few hours.
Here he is on the possibility of United not only winning a fourth European Cup later this spring but repeating the treble success of 14 years ago: "I think it's a possibility but I also know how incredibly lucky you have to be. The starting point is to have a good team and a good squad and United's current squad is incredible. I agree with Fergie: it's probably the best squad he's had."
It's at this point, unfortunately, that Peter Boleslaw Schmeichel, the goalkeeper of the ages, begins to resemble his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the world's greatest fairy tales.
Schmeichel declares: "Our group in 1999 didn't have two great players per position like now."
The reality is, of course, that it is something of a push to claim that United can field one team of great players. Good ones – but 11 great ones?
No, it can't be claimed seriously and doing so can only be to mistake the nature of Ferguson's astonishing achievement in leading the Premier League by such a distance and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and the sixth round of the FA Cup.
It is an incredible performance even by his extravagant winning standards. He may not be doing it entirely with smoke and mirrors but what we are witnessing, surely, is one of Ferguson's most extraordinary feats of motivation.
If he made a superb move into the market when signing Robin van Persie, his changed financial possibilities made further significant team strengthening impossible.
So Ferguson has eked out his thinnest resources since he first returned United to the front rank of English and European football. He has mocked the efforts of his better-heeled rivals Manchester City and Chelsea. He has reconjured the philosophy of a team who have simply rejected the concept of defeat.
However, in this stunning process he has hardly underpinned Schmeichel's astonishing argument that he is better equipped in playing strength than he was before his Champions League and title triumphs of '99 and 2008.
Today he has Van Persie performing match-winning chores of superb consistency, Rio Ferdinand finding an especially rich vein of form and Wayne Rooney spasmodically reminding us that he can be a world-class performer.
That is the core of United's strength and, if it is impressive, it does not run either so wide or so deep as when Ferguson hit those earlier peaks.
In '99 United had a little good fortune as well as vast resolve in beating Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp without the immense influence of Keane and a Scholes moving brilliantly towards the prime of his career.
However, in the second leg of the semi-final in Turin their defeat of Juventus was powerful evidence that they were indeed the strongest team in the tournament.
They also had in Schmeichel the world's best goalkeeper by some distance, Gary Neville and Denis Irwin (both of whom made Bobby Charlton's lifetime United XI), Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and a striking trio of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, plus the match-winner Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Here, plainly, there was a depth of resource not so apparent today, a point which Schmeichel to some extent concedes when he suggests that David de Gea, a hero at the Bernabeu in the first leg of tonight's tie, might well be sold in the summer if Ferguson decides to make a fresh attempt to seek again some of the security supplied by Edwin van der Sar.
The superbly reliable Van der Sar was one source of confidence in Moscow in 2008.
There were also Cristiano Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs, Carlos Tevez and a Nemanja Vidic asserting his right to be considered the best central defender in the world.
None of this is to imply that United are without serious prospects of progress tonight in front of their own people. They showed impressive competitive character in Madrid, when Real still managed to produce some striking evidence that they were indeed beginning to sharpen the counter-attacking game which in the last week has twice got the better of Barcelona. It is merely to say that perhaps we should be prepared to categorise a potentially famous victory as something other than another statement of Manchester United's superior strength.
If it happens it will, with all respect to the great goalkeeper, be less a Danish fairy story, more another case of extraordinary, perhaps even unique will. (© Independent News Service)