United see red as dirty tricks pitch row brews
A dirty tricks storm erupted in Barcelona last night over the size of the Nou Camp pitch for tomorrow's Champions' League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich.
As the United officials and players touched down in Catalonia on Concorde, they were informed that the pitch had been reduced in width from 72 metres to 68 metres, which corresponds precisely to the measurements of Bayern's Olympic Stadium home!
Alex Ferguson was privately furious when he heard that the goal-posts had been moved by UEFA as the tighter pitch is certain to influence the effectiveness of United's wide players.
The change from the normal Barcelona pitch specifications was carried out under UEFA orders and without any consultation with United, whose Old Trafford pitch is 70 metres wide.
``The pitch was the one size for all the Champions' League group matches when Bayern Munich and ourselves played here. Now, UEFA have decided to change it, without asking us about it. That seems strange to say the least,'' said Ferguson.
``We have to find out what's behind this. Until we see the pitch ourselves when we train there tomorrow and have our own people look at it, I can't comment too much further. But if the reports are accurate, we'll have something to say about it then.''
United's siege mentality was already hardening after they learned that Bayern have been practising with the match ball for the past 11 days.
Mind you, Fergie is no stranger to tampering with pitches himself. He ordered Old Trafford ground staff to use excessive water on the pitch before the Champions' League quarter-final with Monaco last season.
At least, United won the toss to decide which team would wear their first-choice colours, Bayern will play in their change grey-silver strip.
Ferguson has yet to disclose his team, but it's expected that Ronnie Johnson will partner Nicky Butt in midfield, with David May lining up alongside Jap Stam in central defence.
Irish veteran Denis Irwin, suspended for last Saturday's English FA Cup final win, is certain to resume at left-back in place of Phil Neville.
Teddy Sheringham made a huge impact when he came on in place of the injured Roy Keane at Wembley and that prompted speculation that the former Spurs striker would win a place in tomorrow's starting line-up, possibly in a 4-3-3 formation, but Ferguson seems certain to stick with his trusted 4-4-2 set-up, spearheaded by Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
For Butt, a peripheral figure during United's triumphant march to the final with just three starts in 12 games, tomorrow's game represents a mammoth challenge as he attempts to fill the void vacated by the suspended Keane.
``I appreciate the burden of responsibility on my shoulders,'' said the 24-year-old product of Fergie's youth programme at Old Trafford.
``Roy (Keane) has been a huge influence on me. I watch him in training and he's just as aggressive out there as he is on the pitch. He is a massive presence.
``It's going to be difficult to replicate what Roy does but we're not kids any more. It's time to show we're men.
``The Germans are very powerful, massive players with tremendous experience. If we perform to the levels we're capable of, we can do the job.''
Bayern Munich will deploy German international defender Markus Babbel in midfield tomorrow in an effort to combat the threat of Ryan Giggs.
In an unusual step, Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld named his side more than 48 hours in advance to give his players time to prepare themselves mentally and the big surprise is the choice of Babbel on the right side of midfield instead of Thomas Strunz.
``Giggs is more of a striker than a midfielder so we need defensive stability in that area,'' explained Hitzfeld.
On the other flank Michael Tarnat will he handed the job of trying to contain David Beckham, whom the Germans have dubbed the `flankengott' or crossing god.
HIDE AND SEEK
``I can't play hide and seek and that's why I have named my team,'' said Hitzfeld, who seems certain to adopt a 3-4-3 formation instead of his normal 3-5-2.
Lotthar Matthaus, still a World-class player at 38, will bridge a 12-year gap between European Cup finals with Bayern when he lines out as sweeper between markers Thomas Linke and Samuel Kuffour.
Matthaus, a stalwart of four World Cup finals, was on the Bayern team which lost 2-1 to Porto in the 1987 decider.
Jens Jeremies and Stefan Effenberg will pull the strings in midfield, while up front Hitzfeld will again entrust his faith in Carsten Jancker and Alexander Zickler, who have played in 11 of Bayern's 12 Champions' League games this season, with Mario Basler, the semi-final hero against Dinamo Kiev, operating just behind them.
No Elber, no Lizarazu, both injured, but Bayern still pack a formidable punch, on the pitch. Off the pitch too, it would seem that the German influence in UEFA's hierarchy is strong, especially when it comes to marking pitches!
The Catalan capital was quiet yesterday in advance of tomorrow's 90,000 sell-out final. The hawkers outside the magnificent Nou Camp were doing little business as fans, mostly wearing Manchester United colours, clustered in small knots.
In spite of the low-key build-up, interest in the final is immense with precious match tickets fetching 500 on the black market.
In the event of the teams finishing level after 90 minutes, the `Golden Goal' rule will apply.
``It's an additional thrill for the fans but as a coach I don't like it because the final could be decided by an individual mistake by one player and a team is not given a chance to react,'' said Hitzfeld, who coached Dortmund to Champions' League glory two years ago.
Italian Pierluigi Collina will referee tomorrow's match. Collina, renowned as much for his bald pate as much as his strict decisions, will be assisted by compatriots Gennaro Mazzei and Claudio Puglisi, along with fourth official Fiorenzo Treossi.
The 39-year-old Collina was at the centre of controversy last September when he dismissed former United midfielder Paul Ince during the Euro 2000 qualifier between England and Sweden in Stockholm.
MANCHESTER UTD (probable) Schmeichel; G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Johnsen, Giggs; Yorke, Cole.
BAYERN MUNICH Kahn; Linker, Matthaus, Kuffur; Babbel, Jeremies, Basler, Effenberg, Tarnat; Jancker, Zickler.