Sport Soccer

Tuesday 25 July 2017

When victory is not enough

Ferguson has brought United to the edge of history with soldiers cast in his image, writes Rory Smith

Ferguson has seen three great teams, that of Cantona, that of Keane, that of Ronaldo. He cleary thinks this edition belongs in their company
Ferguson has seen three great teams, that of Cantona, that of Keane, that of Ronaldo. He cleary thinks this edition belongs in their company

At last, on Tuesday evening, deep in the bowels of the spectacular Veltins-Arena, it became clear what you can get the man who has everything.

Alex Ferguson has won 11 Premier League and two Champions League titles. He has forged and dismantled no fewer than three great teams, and still he does not have all that he wants. The 69-year-old has his trophies. Now he wants his time.

The nature of Ferguson's obsession was obvious from how quickly he reeled off the list of sides boasting greater European pedigree than Manchester United. He knows it by rote. It must be etched on his soul.

"We look at clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool," he said. "We really need to progress quickly to get to that level."

'That level,' though, may not be a numerical concept, as was widely assumed. How could it be? Catching Ajax and Bayern Munich -- both of whom boast four stars, one more than United -- is not the same as drawing level with Liverpool, as Anfield, where five trophies reside, would be quick to point out, and clearly not the same as achieving parity with Real Madrid. The Spaniards are six clear of United. That may be beyond even Ferguson.

Instead, the Scot's desire may be a temporal one. What all five of those teams have in common is a dynasty. Real have the 1950s and the turn of the millennium, AC Milan the late 1980s, Ajax and Bayern consecutive spells in the 1970s. Liverpool, from 1977 to 1984, were their heirs. All have a part of history to call their own. United do not.

They have three fleeting successes -- 1968, 1999 and 2008 -- but there is no lustrum which will bear their name. Ferguson sees that as a shortcoming. Victory is no longer enough, not for a man who has achieved so much. He must have immortality.

It is quite against expectation that he finds himself in a position to achieve that. United's progress to Wembley, their third final in four years, is likely to be serene, so meek was the challenge proffered by Schalke last Tuesday. There they will, barring a spectacular turnaround amid the poison and the passion-play theatrics of the Nou Camp, meet Europe's other great under-achievers, Barcelona, in their second final in three years, also bidding for their fourth star.

The two sides' records in recent years, then, is broadly similar. The winner, should they meet, would have a good case for imprinting their name on this particular section of football's story. These would be the United years, or the age of Barcelona, to posterity.

How the two are perceived, though, is starkly different. Pep Guardiola's team have spent much of this year -- in Britain, where news from abroad travels slowly -- and much of the last three years on the continent having their place in the pantheon dissected and discussed.

This incarnation of Barcelona may or may not be the greatest team of the last decade, the last century, of all time, but that the conversation does exists does not seem absurd.

What, then, if United were to triumph in London on May 28? And against the balletic devastation of Guardiola's history-makers? Few would suggest they, too, deserve a place among the greats.

Their flaws, after all, are too readily apparent. Ferguson stands on the cusp of his fourth Champions League final with a team too reliant on the ageing legs of Ryan Giggs and the fading eyes of Paul Scholes, a side lacking the midfield class which characterised his previous efforts, players who have too often failed to convince -- particularly on their travels -- domestically.

This is, it is widely accepted, the most average of United sides. They will be Premier League champions by default. A record-breaking 19th title will fall into their laps through the failings of others.

This afternoon's visit to the Emirates is a case in point. Ferguson has compared a week in which United face Arsenal this afternoon, Schalke on Wednesday and Chelsea next weekend to that which accompanied the 1999 Champions League semi-final with Juventus, but the Scot's memory may be playing tricks on him.

That was a year in which the title race went to the last day, the FA Cup semi-final replay to extra-time and the Champions League final to the dying seconds. United won it all, but they were pushed all the way.

This year, Ferguson can talk about rotating his squad for the visit of Schalke -- even Michael Owen may play -- and travels to Arsenal knowing Arsene Wenger's side can play without the pressure of a title race, so abysmally, so abjectly have they collapsed since the Carling Cup final.

Ferguson, asked about the perception that this United are not all they might be, said: "It doesn't bother me, to be honest. Some of our away form has been disappointing, you can't deny that, but we have had probably the best home record we have ever had. We have two home games left and we have dropped two points. I cannot remember a better season in that way."

It sounds almost like propaganda. Ferguson is relentlessly positive about this team. For a long time, his confidence has seemed like a mind-trick, an attempt to fool the world into ignoring their flaws.

Now, perhaps that ought to change. Ferguson has seen three great teams, that of Cantona, that of Keane, that of Ronaldo. He clearly thinks this edition belongs in their company. Perhaps it is time the rest of us began to agree.

After all, even the first of his teams to conquer Europe was not without its flaws. Indeed, in a straight comparison between United 2011 and United 1999, it is not immediately evident which is superior.

This defence -- Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra certainly, though doubts remain over United's first-choice right-back -- and this attack, the hurricane and hit-man combination of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, both stand comparison.

It is only in goal, where for all Edwin van der Sar's ageless class, Peter Schmeichel remains peerless, and in midfield where the present does not bear scrutiny.

The midfield which overcame Internazionale, Juventus and, narrowly, Bayern was finely-tuned, snarling and sublime in equal measure. As a unit, it is probably Ferguson's finest work. Nicky Butt, employed as first reserve then, would walk into United's side now. There would certainly have been no place, say, for Park Ji-Sung.

And yet it is in Ferguson's attitude to Hernandez and the Korean that what he treasures about this side becomes clear. The Mexican has "overcome every challenge". Park, he believes, "does a double job" under those Wednesday night lights. "He defends with his life and his energy is terrific," he said.

This team may not have the genius of the class of 1999 or 2008. There is no Roy Keane, there is no David Beckham, and there is no Cristiano Ronaldo. But it is, in a sense, the side that mirrors its manager most. Determined, indomitable, refusing to acknowledge defeat.

Ferguson stands on the edge of history with soldiers cast in his image. This may be their time.

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