Football: Now for finest hour and a half

Ferguson's Invincibles appear charged, rather than overwhelmed, by the sheer scale of responsibility

IT CAN BE hell out here in the icy wastes, suffering from the effects of adjectival deprivation. Sometimes you feel like a member of the expeditionary force who must transmit a message to the base- camp quarter-master: We are fast running out of superlatives. Please send reinforcements. That was the experience at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin where the cacophony of approval reached a climax, inspired by that supreme Sherpa of footballing ascent, Alex Ferguson.

Within eight days we have witnessed at Villa Park possibly the goal of the season, by dint of Ryan Giggs's genius, followed on Wednesday against Juventus by the finest 45 minutes of the manager's Old Trafford career. What next, you pondered, for the beaming, rubicund Scot as the eulogies and platitudes lapped around the Manchester United manager like flotsam near a jetty? He answered that himself, quietly: "I hope my greatest night is to come."

By 26 May at the Nou Camp, in Barcelona, scene of the European Cup final, our stocks of complimentary metaphors could be horribly low. Eight games to go, and no sign of Ferguson's men succumbing to the task. Indeed, they appear charged, rather than overwhelmed, by the sheer scale of the responsibility.

Perhaps the goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel gave a clue to the ingredient that continues to strengthen United's unflagging morale as he savoured the aftermath of the 4-3 aggregate triumph. "We've played really well in the last couple of months. It has been great fun playing football. Every single game has been a highlight."

As market forces contrive to re-design the shape of the national game - none more so than the abortive BSkyB takeover at Old Trafford - United somehow retain the ambience of a team who relish performing for its own sake. Fun? When did that last appear in the professional's lexicon? Remove the fat wallets and purring sports cars, the sublime talents and athletic physique, and it's Sunday morning in the park.

Displaying unbridled passion for the cause, United were almost wanton in their desire to progress. Against Arsenal the previous week, there was a raw, stomach-churning edge to proceedings. Here, after a seemingly catastrophic first 10 minutes there was scarcely a frisson of concern from this quarter that they would fail. The away-goal rule is one piece of legislation United relish obeying. Even at 2-0 behind, Ferguson's side were aware that they remained tantalisingly close to the final; by the interval it was merely a question of how many goals United could accumulate.

As Schmeichel reflected: "Once we'd scored our first goal I was pretty sure we'd go through because with that goal we had the psychological advantage. It's very difficult being two-nil up and being pulled back. You feel under pressure all the time. When we got our second goal I was confident it was going to be our night."

The first leg had taught them that it would be an occasion for pick-axes and shovels as much as paint and brushes. At Old Trafford, Juve's four midfielders had erected such a shield, protecting their rearguard from the cosmic rays of United's stars, that their frailties were unexposed until the final minutes.

This time, with Keane and, to a lesser extent, Nicky Butt negating the authority of Edgar Davids and Didier Deschamps, and Zinedine Zidane's menace also being quelled by Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen, in defence Juve proved as soft and as accommodating as a duvet. They rarely met the aerial challenge of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, and that splendidly intuitive interplay between the pair and those untrackable dummies rendered the home team constantly prone to swift assault. As Terry Venables put it succinctly the following morning: "They were crap at the back. I've never seen an Italian team, two goals ahead, buckle like that."

Yet, as Ferguson's team of Ferrari fanciers head, inexorably, towards the "treble", it is inevitable that the much overworked quality of "greatness" - which many will feel, in sporting terms, should be bestowed only on the likes of Ali and Pele - is thrust upon them. That debate can wait, for Ferguson's men have won nothing yet this season. Comparisons with their United forebears, however, bear the closest examination. A historic perspective is taken by the club's former wing-half and manager Wilf McGuinness, whose opinion is that the class of '99 is developing on a par with the Busby Babes. "For me, Real Madrid were the greatest club side of all time and the Busby Babes could, if you like, have been our Real Madrid. I feel these boys have the same potential. They are different from the side that won the European Cup in 1968. That had three world-class players [Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, the last of whom didn't play in the final] and relied heavily on them. We don't need a Best or a Charlton because every player in the team does so much. You can never pick a man of the match."

It is an astute enough observation. Roy Keane, Stam, David Beckham, Yorke, Cole, Johnsen, Denis Irwin were all such contenders in their own way, and therein lies the solid framework of United's construction. On the night itself, how many observers actually noticed the absence of Giggs, even if, as an understudy, Jesper Blomqvist lacks his exceptional verve and eye for goal? Giggs missing or Beckham heavily marked: there are constantly alternative options when passage along one route is blocked.

Just as in the first leg, Angelo Di Livio and Gianluca Pessotto attempted to harry Beckham like the paparazzi after an A-list celebrity outside Stringfellows. Not that it unduly inhibited the England man, but when it did, there were always willing volunteers to maintain the supply to Yorke, not least the striker's confederate, Cole.

One can only admire the response to potential perils by Beckham, who has nobly attempted to defy the stereotypical view of an overpaid, strutting footballer possessing an overstretched libido. It is, no doubt, partly to Ferguson's credit that the commotion which followed his World Cup dismissal, the ensuing vitriolic response from rival fans and the planned marriage to the Spice Girl Victoria, and the birth of their child, should have failed to diminish his performances. You can think of several of his peers who would have found any of those circumstances an alibi for any number of failings.

No doubt, he will have already found reassurance that his Bayern Munich nemesis, the exceptional French World Cup defender Bixente Lizarazu, is injured and unlikely to appear in the final. The fact is that even on a rare off-day Beckham's presence has the same effect as a fox sniffing at chickens in a coop. It was also gratifying against Juve to see him adhere religiously and tenaciously to the defensive duties demanded of him by his manager.

Whether Beckham is worthy of election as Footballer of the Year, though, as some have mooted, is another matter when one considers a team containing Keane and Stam. The Irishman has had his qualities well chronicled over six seasons at Old Trafford; not yet the Dutchman, whose destructive qualities, after an uncertain begin- ning, have been without equal at European level. His second- half saving tackles against the substitute Nicola Amoruso and Zidane were as aesthetic a delight as Beckham's flights of fancy from the flank.

For all that United have "grown up" in Europe, to borrow the manager's expression, both Keane and Paul Scholes exhibited a naivety that still exists by being cautioned, thus depriving them of the opportunity to lead his team into a Champions' League final that certainly the Irishman merits above all his team-mates. Ominously, it will weaken United in an area where their opponents are at their most potent, as well as demonstrating that even the roster of England's most pre-eminent squad can appear deficient in certain circumstances.

Not that the array of back-up personnel will improve next season, a situation likely to make contract negotiations between United and Ferguson a fascinating summer sideshow, European champions or not, and regardless of his own deal, rumoured to be pounds 12m over four years. That was probably farthest from his thoughts on Wednesday night. The backslapping must have left the Scot with bruised flanks as he caroused with fans, jigging his way to the team coach with mobile phone to ear as he relayed his delight. You could hardly decry Ferguson relishing his achievement because he knows that during his career he has been only a referee's whistle, or the cruel bounce of a ball, away from a backstabbing by a multitude of verbal stilettos.

Yet, only yards away, his chairman, still evidently irked by the prohibiting of the BSkyB deal, was taking a far more sombre view of the club's long- term prospects. "It may be that the squad we've got is good enough and deep enough to get us through next season as well," Edwards declared. "We spent a lot of money last summer and just can't spend money every year. We're a public company and there are limits. We know we have to replace the keeper. Other than that, I don't know."

The notion of a Champions' League is already a misnomer. Next season, it will be further devalued as it becomes, in everything but name, the Uefa Cup Division One. Increasingly, as Arsene Wenger suggested last week, it will alter the whole structure of the way clubs build their teams.

Edwards added: "It's going to be more difficult for English clubs to be successful next season when there could be 17 games, maybe even 19 games, if you reach the final. We play a lot more League and cup games than any other country, except for Spain, and our games are much more crowded together. We've got a big squad but it clearly means we're going to have to stretch that squad on more occasions."

All of which means that, whether or not Ferguson celebrates his greatest achievement in a month's time, it could prove a minor detail to the conflict of wills that could follow.

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