Fergie facing final dilemma
Alex Ferguson will have to take a leaf out of Jose Mourinho's book if Manchester United are to win what looks likely to be another Champions League final against Barcelona. He must do what Inter Milan did last year and what Real Madrid tried to do last week. He must kill the game and, to the purists, spoil the occasion. It is not pretty. But it is the only way to win.
What Mourinho's Madrid did at the Bernabeu last week was hellish to watch. It made one of the most appetising semi-finals in recent years a non-event. Barcelona did not cover themselves in glory with their histrionics, but it was Mourinho's tactics which made for an almost tragic spectacle.
For a Real Madrid manager to do that is almost unthinkable. At home, in the Champions League, with the world watching, with all of the history and tradition of the Bernabeu, and when he will never have a better chance to get at Barcelona. Pep Guardiola was so starved of defensive options that he was forced to play Javier Mascherano as a centre-back. Cristiano Ronaldo could have caused him all sorts of problems. And still Mourinho sat back.
That is because he knows that almost the only way to beat Barcelona is with the blueprint his Inter side produced last season. They must not be allowed to play. They must be stifled, allowed the ball in their own half and then, as soon as Xavi or Andres Iniesta look to break forward, they must be closed down. They cannot be allowed to build a pattern or enjoy any fluidity. It requires incredible focus and remarkable discipline.
Ferguson will know that is the only game plan that can be expected to have any chance of success against a team that are being discussed as one of the greatest in history. After all, he has done it before.
In 2008, United squeezed past Barcelona, in the final year of Frank Rijkaard's reign, on their way to winning the Champions League. The problem is that, since that point, Barcelona have probably gone up a level in their performances. United have dropped down two.
Every team has a cycle. For United, this would be their third Champions League final in four years, and it is safe to say this incarnation is past its peak. That occurred in the first final, in 2008, when a defence built on the omnipotence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand was complemented by an attack of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo.
That team has gradually become less and less of a force. It is hardly surprising when they have allowed players of the quality of Ronaldo and Tevez to leave, but now they are susceptible to having a poor game not just twice or three times a season, but in every two or three away games. They have the air of a team that is built to excel in one-off games.
But, eventually, a side like that will hit a brick wall. The danger is that, if Ferguson attempts to play United's usual game against Barcelona, they will fail to perform. It is one thing having an off day against Arsenal, as United did yesterday, but against a team as good as Guardiola's in front of 90,000 at Wembley and millions more around the world? They would get hammered.
So he will be tempted not to do as he did in the 2009 final, when Barcelona exacted their revenge for the 2008 semi-final and breezed past a United built to attack, and to set his side up to frustrate a superior opponent, as Mourinho does so well.
The 69-year-old will not be fazed by the purists. I played in four European Cup finals, won three and they were all absolutely dire games. They were not exciting in the slightest. Nobody ever says they won the European Cup but it didn't count because the final wasn't up to much. All that matters is that you win.
Ferguson's problem is that United seem to have neither the personnel nor the inclination to carry out such a plan. This is not a side set up to stifle opponents and hit them on the break.
Such a system relies upon a team being determined and energetic enough not to have the ball for long stretches of the game and to take their chances if and when they come along. United do not do that. They are not the sort of team to get men behind the ball and wait.
And they no longer boast the sheer electric pace, the elemental force of Ronaldo leading the charge. They have players who are just as quick, but not as good. That gulf in quality is crucial.
Besides, such a change of emphasis would be detrimental. Attempting to change players' mentality on the eve of such a big game is even more difficult than asking them to play in a new formation.
Ferguson finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma. To attack Barcelona is to attract trouble, but his team are ill-equipped to employ the Mourinho method. He will know it is a problem. That it is a problem he will face in a Champions League final at Wembley, though, is some solace.