Football: European Cup Final - Matthaus encapsulates Bayern's despair at cruel turn of events

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AS HE left the podium, Lothar Matthaus took off the loser's medal that some dignitary had placed around his neck. At 38 years of age, he knew he would be getting no further chances to win the one major trophy to have eluded him in a long and much-garlanded career. And he knew something else, something that might have eased the pain a little. He knew this Manchester United side simply refuse to be beaten.

At the end, after the second injury-time goal had gone in, the portion of the pitch occupied by the Bayern Munich players looked like a Giacometti sculpture garden. The footballers stood or sat or lay, suddenly frozen in postures of despair. The referee had to go around them, taking their limp hands and lifting them to their feet, persuading them to enable him to restart the game so that he could blow the final whistle on the most remarkable ending to any of the 44 editions of the European Cup.

They knew, all of them, that by all the normal criteria they had deserved to win. They had scored early, held on, waited for the inevitable storm to break over them, and when it did they responded by hitting the post and the bar twice in the last 10 minutes, and almost scoring the kind of spectacular goal that the more extrovert type of player tries in training sessions. They'd done enough - more than enough, actually - to prevail in what was not, in truth, a great game of football.

It was England versus Germany, with all its customary striving and straining, and not enough of the game's finer graces to impress neutrals among the half-billion or so watching the live television transmissions around the world. Perhaps some of those viewers had even turned off their sets as the match entered injury time, sure that the destiny of the trophy had been settled.

By that time, the best player in the ground had already left his seat in the stadium. It would have been interesting to see what effect Rivaldo, the architect of Barcelona's victory in the Spanish League this season, might have had on the nature of this match, in which so little artistry was applied. What a contrast both sides made with last year's champions, Real Madrid, whose approach work had the balance and intricacy of chamber music. Last night, football seemed to be a game in which the object was to profit from the other side's mistakes. This was a test not so much of skill as of character.

Alex Ferguson's decision to rearrange his entire midfield on the eve of the most important match of his career, and Manchester United's most important fixture for 31 years, was a bold and risky one. Jesper Blomqvist was never likely to pose the same threat down the left wing as Ryan Giggs, while the Welshman, when moved to the right flank, would always be cutting inside to bring the ball onto his stronger foot. But he had clearly decided to stick with the improvised FA Cup final formula of using David Beckham as Roy Keane's replacement in central midfield, which meant sacrificing a guaranteed supply of crosses in open play.

When Bayern scored after only five minutes and five seconds had elapsed, United seemed to have fallen victim to a recently acquired addiction to adversity. They had gone two goals behind in Turin against Juventus and triumphed, and they had won the Premier League after letting Tottenham take the lead at Old Trafford. Their fans reacted by redoubling their chants, disappointed rather than dismayed and hopeful of a replay of those thrilling fightbacks. But elsewhere the deadly suspicion was that Bayern would prove to be made of sterner stuff, and would be less ready to let Ferguson's men atone for their early lapse.

Mario Basler's wickedly accurate free-kick certainly spoiled the opening of the final engagement of Peter Schmeichel's farewell tour, and also destroyed any chance that the Danish goalkeeper would sign off by keeping his 180th clean sheet in eight seasons with the club. Taking the captain's armband in Keane's absence, Schmeichel seemed curiously uncomfortable in the early exchanges, perhaps reacting to the unease shown by Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen in the face of the incursions of the raw-boned Bayern forward, Carsten Jancker.

Matthaus, with more experience at this rarified level than the rest of both teams combined, spotted the real weakness in United's pattern, making three box-to-box runs in the middle of the first half which conclusively exposed the centre of the Manchester midfield. Beckham's work, by contrast, was being done with long diagonal balls from deep in his own half aimed at front players who were showing themselves to be badly out of touch.

Beckham's corner kicks, from both left and right, were United's only consistently dangerous tactic, and the least surprising thing about the match's denouement was that both goals came from that source. Ferguson's decision to throw on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and to redeploy Giggs and Beckham to their rightful stations, meant that United were so heavily biased towards attack in the game's final quarter that further opportunities opened up for Bayern - opportunities which they should have used to kill the match. They didn't, and in the end the biggest gamble of Ferguson's life paid off, ending a season in which he and his players really have made history, enthralling and astonishing the rest of us along the way.