Football: Tension calls for the cool head of Irwin

Nick Townsend talks to the United veteran about the final mind game
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE few certainties in football. But one, even their critics have been reluctantly forced to concede, is that Manchester United, at full strength, possess the flair, the stomach and the durability to overcome virtually any opposition. Only Wednesday night will establish whether their manager has the ingenuity to surmount the potentially disabling effects of the loss of the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, with Jaap Stam's condition over 90 minutes uncertain.

But at least should United fail against Bayern Munich in the club's first Champions' final in 31 years it will not be because of any lack of familiarity with the terrain. As seasoned travellers, they come into the game as worldly a set of adventurers as Phileas Fogg. Even a young man like Wes Brown, who could make a contribution at the Nou Camp, has a well-stamped passport.

"Europe has been a long learning curve," said defender Denis Irwin. "It's taken us two or three years to get to grips with it and we've got fairly close without being over-convincing. This time, we've stepped up on that. It's very tactical in Europe. You can feel comfortable, then find yourself 2-0 down. That's what the lads have had to learn, and we've had some hard experiences, but hopefully that's all stood us in good stead."

In the absence of Keane, Alex Ferguson will require men like Irwin, now approaching 34, to be a galvanising and stabilising influence, particularly should events turn against his team. "I'm quite laid-back, but I'm sure there will be some tension creeping in," he said. "It's something you have to cope with as a professional."

He added, with a rueful smile: "The gaffer has learnt, too. He's had an awful lot of European experience, a lot more than any of us. He's settled down a bit; as he's got older he's got calmer, definitely during the last two years. Apparently he was even worse when at Aberdeen. I pity the players there."

What wouldn't Bayern's coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, offer for the key to Ferguson's thought processes over the next three days. From the moment captain Keane and Scholes' cautions against Juventus barred them from the final, the United manager has been faced with one of the most complex dilemmas of his season as he has prepared for the game of his career. "There's going to be a lot of tactical thought, particularly about midfield," he reflected. "It's all in a chamber in my head, locked away. We're playing a very experienced team."

The question that will continue to trouble him, as he seeks to combat the threat of Stefan Effenberg and Jens Jeremies, together with the resourceful veteran Lothar Matthaus emerging from the rear, is whom to pair with Nicky Butt in central midfield. Phil Neville is one option and another is to utilise Ryan Giggs or David Beckham alongside him, with Jesper Blomqvist on the flank. Yet, despite the versatility of his personnel, Ferguson will be reluctant to deploy players out of their usual positions.

Ronny Johnsen is a typical case in point. The Norwegian international could do an effective job as a defensive midfielder but emphasises that he prefers to remain alongside Stam. "I've played at the back for the last four years and, although it's nice to play in midfield as well sometimes, the problem is that it's necessary to get in a few games to really feel confident," said the Norwegian international. "It's a completely different way of playing." In any case, his 6ft 3in frame will be required to counter the anticipated aerial threat from the likes of striker Carsten Jancker, particularly from set-pieces.

In the absence of the injured Henning Berg, Johnsen has asserted himself as the ideal ally for Stam in recent weeks, something that had appeared unlikely earlier in the season when injury threatened severely to curtail his performances. However, since returning, Johnsen, who has three years of his Old Trafford contract remaining, has relished the opportunity to play alongside Stam.

"He's been fantastic ever since he came here. When you come for a big sum like that it's really big pressure and he's coped with that really well. He's helped my game and everybody else in the side."

When you speak to Johnsen there is an air of wonderment from the son of Sandefjord that he is preparing to play in a Champions' League final, although he suspects the hardest task of the season has already been completed. "When you're at a club like United everybody expects you to win something every year. We've done that with the league, which I think is the most difficult. And it gets harder every year. Arsenal, Chelsea and Leeds are really good teams. But if you ask me again on Wednesday night I may have changed my mind."

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