BY Thursday lunchtime, we knew that Manchester United will win tonight’s Champions League final.
Gerard Pique supplied the epiphany, spilling Catalan hubris everywhere like Salvador Dali with a leaky palette.
The words, like his girlfriend’s hips, didn’t lie. Barcelona don’t just want to win, Gerard told us, they want to win “the right way.”
Barcelona wouldn’t be “compromising their principles.”
I can’t have been the only one to immediately take the 6/4. This was the crazy talk of a man who had taken his eye as badly off the ball as he did for Levante’s equaliser the night Barca retained the La Liga title.
Does Gerard not remember who he is dealing with? When you’re up against Alex Ferguson, you are wise to take victory any way it comes. You can double that if you’ve beaten Ferguson last time out and given him two years to plot revenge.
A couple of days before Pique shared his plans for the weekend, we saw exactly what the Manchester United manager made of doing things the right way.
“We’ll get him,” nodded Fergie grimly to his press officer when a journalist had the temerity to ask a question about an unnamed Premier League star.
The rage in Ferguson’s gimlet eyes was not that of a man considering aesthetics. Or principles.
In full battle mode on weeks like this, Ferguson will win any way it comes, at any cost.
Many years ago, Ferguson outlined his basic philosophy about the game.
“All my life I have based my football creed on passing the ball, possession with rhythm and tempo.”
But that is the Ferguson way simply because he realised, early doors, that it is usually the winning way.
As he said, 35 years ago, at St Mirren; “There is only one way for me — or anyone associated with me — and that’s winning. I’m not in this game to be a middle-of-the-road manager, I’m in it to win everything.”
As Arsenal found out when they briefly had Manchester United’s number early in the last decade, Ferguson will assemble a lynch mob if the occasion demands.
When Arsène Wenger was in opposition, possession became one-tenth of the law. Fergie found another way to win.
In reality, Manchester United haven’t produced a performance in three Champions League finals under Ferguson. They have, however, won two of them. The wrong way, the lucky way, the unconvincing way. Winning, for Ferguson, is the only thing that matters.
The first time Ferguson won the Champions League, he more or less shamed his players into doing so, by reminding them at half-time of the consequences of defeat.
“You will be six feet from the European Cup, but you won’t be able to touch it, of course. And I want you to think about the fact that you’ll have been so close to it and for many of you that will be the closest you will ever get. And you will hate that thought for the rest of your lives.”
His team played for two minutes, but it was enough. Another way to win.
When they faced Barcelona two years ago, Manchester United played for fully 10 minutes, the first 10, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Things might have been very different, however, but for Gerard Pique’s last-ditch tackle that denied Ji-Sung Park an early open goal. In that moment, Pique wasn’t thinking how he was going to win, he wasn’t burdened by principles. He was simply winning.
After that defeat two years ago, Ferguson admitted that something, somewhere had gone wrong in his preparations. He regretted resting players for a fortnight before the final but he also bemoaned the poor concentration levels that allowed Samuel Eto’o to steal in for the opening goal that dictated how that game would go.
As Al Pacino, another good man to talk, famously reminded us, life and football is just a game of inches and “you only learn that when you start losing stuff”.
Perhaps victory last time came a little easily for Barcelona. When they strolled out in Rome to the strains of Bocelli singing “Now We Are Free,” Barca looked liberated. They had just been drawn to tears by an emotional Pep talk that focussed on the journey rather than the destination.
“We are attackers who defend, we are defenders who attack. We are one.”
But if something in Guardiola’s preparations, this time, has leaked entitlement into the minds of players like Pique, Barcelona will lose the game of inches. When that happens, Alex Ferguson will steal a mile.
And he will win. Again.
Should Ireland give up the chase?
JOHN GILES was relaxing in a hotel room in Blackpool, doubtless taking the sea air on its merits, when he heard about his first call-up for his country.
There wasn’t a telephone call, a telegram, or a carriage from one of the pigeons John loved so much. Instead, Gilesy’s roommate Joe Carolan picked up the Daily Mirror. Having checked it twice or three times to be sure, Joe put down the paper and turned to Gilesy. “We’re playing for Ireland.”
The Manchester United pair were delighted, though Gilesy, being a practical sort, couldn’t help but worry what would have happened if Carolan hadn’t bought the paper that morning.
While nobody is suggesting the FAI’s methods of communication, then or now, are ideal; we now seem to have reached a parallel world where the association is doing all the chasing.
At a time when half the Premier League is on Twitter, four of our players couldn’t get an accurate message to the FAI about their availability this week.
Not that this is anything new, or confined to Irish players. Ryan Giggs, another man who made news this week, was once king of the international friendly no-show.
But there are some lads worth chasing, worth dragging out of bed ten minutes before kick-off, worth buying the fare home for.
Giggs is one of those; our own AWOL heroes might do well to consider whether they belong in that category.
Can Cork stage another blitz?
IT has been a mixed week for hurling; the disappointment of Obama’s cack-handed grip was balanced by a cameo role for a hurley in Blitz, the latest movie vehicle for Jason Statham’s inadequately suppressed rage.
Statham’s impressive command of ground hurling will please traditionalists as he dispatches a succession of prone hoodlums to Hell’s Kitchen with a series of lovely, wristy pulls. A good man at close quarters, then, but would Jason be exposed in the wide open spaces of Semple Stadium? It’s a question Cork fans will also be asking about their team tomorrow, with vengeance of a more refined kind on Tipp’s mind.
Last May, Denis Walsh’s side suffocated an ill-prepared Tipp team with the intensity of their own blitz. It will be remarkable if an unheralded Cork team can repeat that feat against forewarned champions.
Sadly, the Cork public don’t appear to be gripped by the prospect and it will be a tragedy if eight successive years of this fixture has watered down what was once the highlight of any sporting calendar.
Judge & Jury
ACCUSED: Marty Morrissey
THE RAP: The Committee Room has failed to sate the obvious hunger for more GAA programming.
EVIDENCE: Thousands of Gaels are said to have exhibited symptoms of chronic mortification during a segment where Ryan O’Dwyer and Dotsy O’Callaghan engaged in the GAA’s first known attempt at televised ‘banter’.
PROSECUTION: If you have two minutes with the young hurler of the year, should you really spend half of it asking him about Fleadh Cheoils?
FOR THE DEFENCE: The slot with Big Dan in his lorry wasn’t bad.
CROSS-EXAMINATION: But don’t we have enough hurlers to bring out from behind the helmets without resorting to the same old faces?
VERDICT: Case adjourned for six weeks before we decide on a motion of no-confidence in this committee.