I DIDN’T see the man from the Manchester Evening News in the aftermath of Tuesday night’s defeat of Barcelona.
Which is probably just as well — his beaming smile would almost certainly have blinded me.
On the day of the game, he’d used his newspaper column to mock those uppity London scribes who’d dared to suggest that, after the Nou Camp and Stamford Bridge, the presumed God-like genius of Alex Ferguson might be open to reappraisal.
“I genuinely feel I could write tonight’s match verdict right at this moment,” he grandstanded, although he didn’t bother to follow through on his psychic abilities.
“Instead, I’ll simply walk around the Old Trafford press box after the Reds have won and remind southern scribblers it’s highly dangerous to question Fergie’s tactics — the Fiery One always has the last laugh.”
Ultimately, Fergie’s fan was proved right, by the narrowest of margins and, to a large extent, because Barca were like a bit like the absent Ronaldinho in reverse — all dashing good looks but no teeth. Revealingly, there was neither fire nor laughter from Ferguson in the aftermath, just a sober analysis of the ebb and flow of the two legs and, in the way he spent most of his press conference slumped back into his chair, a small physical betrayal of the toll another huge game for the club had taken on the manager as well as his players.
“I knew it would be a long night,” he said. “They’re a great football club, with a terrific philosophy — even their manner at the end of the game was fantastic. It’s not easy to beat that sort of Barcelona team because they’re fantastic footballers.
“First half I thought we were far too nervous, second half I thought we played with more conviction, belief in our selves, confidence in our play. Obviously if you’re 1-0 up towards the end of the game, then your opponents have to have a go and they had a go and I’m glad we got through that, a spell of about 15 minutes which was a bit of a hang-on job. But they didn’t really make any chances, which was basically down to the defending.”
Defeated Barca coach Frank Rijkaard went further, suggesting United had played on the counter-attack both home and away. Ferguson allowed himself a knowing grin at the backhanded compliment.
“What Frank Rijkaard is saying is that we didn’t go hell for leather at them too early.” A pause. A bigger smile. “I think he’d have liked that.”
Rijkaard, whose days at the Nou Camp must now be as numbered as those of Ronaldinho, also seemed to acknowledge Barca’s style — which Jack Charlton might have dubbed “pretty but not effective” — offered no answer to the questions posed by the more pragmatic English game.
“But for the fact two of them had to play against each other, we could very easily have seen four English teams in the semi-finals,” he said. “Because it’s very hard to play against them. Very difficult to beat them. They’re very strong and very disciplined. They all get behind the ball when they’re losing, they’re very well organised, always trying to counter attack. The only thing I think is it’s a pity because I think the English teams have more to give to the public but the results are very important. It’s strange to see English teams defending, defending with their lives and then looking to counter attack, I think they can do more with their own spirit, their own culture but you don’t see it in their European football.”
Identifying where he seems to think English football lost its soul — even as it’s set to scoop European football’s top prize — Rijkaard cited the tactical influence of foreign coaches schooled in the defensive black arts. “They have great players but I don’t it’s the way for a team like Barca to play,” he said sniffily.
One can only assume he hasn’t seen much of Arsenal this season, a side which, much like his own, have failed to turn a richness of ingredients into a winning recipe.
And while it’s reasonable to speak about the foreign influence on the English game, both on the pitch and in the dugout, it’s also only fair to point out the summit meeting between Man U and Chelsea in Moscow will potentially see the number of English-born players on the pitch hitting double figures.
As for the Red Devils, history beckons again. Fifty years after Munich and 40 years after their first European Cup triumph, they are once more on the brink of continental glory. But brink, of course, is the operative word.
The explosion of joy inside Old Trafford at the final whistle on Tuesday will quickly be forgotten should Alex Ferguson’s men stumble, Devon Loch-style, in the final furlongs at home and abroad. As well-known supporter Mr B Ahern might once have put it: a lot done, more to do.
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