Football: The Incomparables

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ON A CLEAR, bright new day, the euphoria had not subsided but was merely collecting itself for a renewed assault on the senses as the street cleaners of Barcelona worked overtime. Alex Ferguson sat in the city's plush waterside Arts Hotel, with an exotic backdrop of fountains and palm trees, and beamed the smile of a thoroughly contented man. If he hadn't already considered it the previous night, he must have thought he had been transported to nirvana, everyone wanting to shake the Scot's hand, genuflecting and paying homage like Nubian slaves at the feet of King Rameses.

Yet, if he can go to his tomb in the knowledge that an achievement rendered by an angelic-featured Norwegian assassin and an east London hatchet man, casual trades-men among Manchester United's regular labouring force, is unlikely ever to be bettered, behind that mask the calculus in his brain will already have been at work, planning ahead. The fear, from his own perspective, is that things can only get worse. Not, perhaps, by most other club chairmen who would relish a pot or two, but now by his own standards.

While one could hardly expect him, at such a moment, to conduct a microscopic analysis of his team's deficiencies, there will be no delusion on his part that reinforcements will be required if United are to repeat all or part of this year's accumulated honours. Possibly a significant overhaul, at that. In time Ferguson will force himself to review matters at about 10.30 local time on Wednesday night as the fates - the ones he had summoned so successfully all season - all appeared to be conspiring against him. He stood helpless, hands behind his back, preparing his speech of the vanquished man like a political candidate given a shake of the head by the returning officer.

As he admitted later, Ferguson was determined to inject some dignity into proceedings, but he must have experienced a stabbing sensation in the pit of his stomach as all his preparations towards the grand design, which stretched back to the moment he walked into Old Trafford in November, 1986, were reduced to a box containing losers' medals. It will not have concerned him that the full scorn of a media convinced that he had erred irreparably, in deploying Ryan Giggs on the right flank, would be unleashed upon him.

What he was conscious of was that, possibly, there would be no coming back. "I honestly felt that was my best chance because next year the Champions' League is 17 games on top of the domestic programme and internationals. It'll be much harder," Ferguson maintained as he revealed how he had anticipated progress through Europe. "I thought that with Cantona in the side we might do it. He was a talisman and had the presence to convince players they could compete at this level. Three years ago there was the Dortmund game which should have been the final. It was a gutting experience, but it told you we weren't far away. Our form in the Champions' League has proved that with incredible performances against the Juves, the Bayerns and the Barce-lonas... then you think to yourself, maybe it's not going to come to you."

What happened next, in the city of art, was as much a paradox on football's canvas as a work of Salvador Dali. In 90 minutes, few United players had done themselves justice. David Beckham, appropriately enough the man who lugged the Cup out of the Nou Camp and on to the team bus with the insouciance of a Costa Brava reveller with a sombrero-clad toy donkey, gave his all in central midfield. But Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole were too frequently on medium wave when he was tuned to VHF. As a group on the biggest club stage of all they had died as surely as the nervous comic in front of the Wheeltappers and Shunters' Club. There have been unmemorable European Cups involving British teams - one recalls Nottingham Forest's 1979 defeat of Malmo - but rarely one in which a team has been so manifestly outperformed, yet still claimed victory. Those two late goals cannot conceal the fact that Ferguson was out-manoeuvred by his counterpart, Ottmar Hitzfeld, his team outplayed by a side superior collectively if not individually.

Ferguson viewed it somewhat differently. "They had a bit of trepidation about them in the way they approached it," he maintained. "For a German side to play against us like that shows the respect there is for English football. The point I made to the players before the game was 'They're not as good as Arsenal'. What you're facing when you play the Germans is the mentality. They're famous for rescuing games like the 1996 European Championship. Bertie Vogts took off a young, inexperienced midfield player, [Mehmet] Scholl, but kept all the experience on, shoved [Oliver] Bierhoff up front and won 2-1."

In a sense he was right. Arsenal are probably a better team; certainly as an attacking force. But what did that say about his side? At times, the German exuded a confidence verging on contempt. In Jens Jeremies, a runner and tackler of Micky Thomas's physique and looks but blessed with rather more vision, and defender Samuel Offei Kuffour, who was splendidly resourceful against Yorke and Cole, they had the players of the match. That was if you ignored Stefan Effenberg and Lothar Matthaus. Their control was so manifest that it was difficult not to register a rare emotion and begin to sympathise with Ferguson, wondering what was passing through his mind. Even Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had initially failed to make their typical intervention. There were glances of frustration as balls went astray and half-chances failed to be converted.

The heart appeared to have stopped beating, with no Roy Keane to provide resuscitation. Then out of the corner of his eye Ferguson spied a green- clad figure hove into view. He must have felt like the Saxon facing the gallows spotting Robin Hood, bow at the ready, in the execution crowd. "The only thing that sticks in my mind is [Peter] Schmeichel coming up for the corner," he recalled. "I turned to Steve McClaren and said 'Can you f...... believe him?' " And so the Dane did a "Jimmy Glass", as no doubt it will become known, and suddenly, quite remarkably, United had discovered salvation.

If Ferguson has a fault that exasperates rival supporters, it is that he so rarely offers credit to the opposition. Yet nobody could carp at his honesty when he reflected: "You can talk all you like about tactics. But tactics didn't win that game last night. It was sheer will; maybe luck, too. They never stopped and you have to give them credit for that. Even Bayern accept that. For that equaliser, we had nine bodies in the box."

For those of us who relished merely the prospect of witnessing excellence from the English team there was ambivalence at such a miscarriage of justice, one only heightened by Solskjaer's winner with Bayern mentally prone. Maybe the sheen on the performance must wait until next time, assuming the desire remains as intense. "They won't be satisfied with one trophy," declared Ferguson. "The Giggs and the Beckhams and others are all young men. I don't think they will want to go through their career only savouring that once."

He has no doubts that his '99 team will largely remain intact. "We're losing Schmeichel [almost certainly to be replaced by Mark Bosnich], but the rest of the team can stay together," Ferguson declared. "Players with egos are the best ones to have because they've got to satisfy those egos. The only way they can do that is by being the best. Their ability has always been the most important thing, but they've developed mental toughness. What they can bring now is authority. When a player is 24 he doesn't know how to control a game. When he gets to 27 or 28 he can develop that part of his control although we still, in many ways, want to play off the cuff."

Whatever the cost United must not dwell on their good fortune, even if they have to sell first in order to speculate. They need to augment their squad with a midfielder of the vision of Barcelona's Brazilian Rivaldo, unless Ferguson perseveres with Beckham in the centre. "There's no problem him playing central midfield, although a lot depends on how young [Jonathan] Greening comes on. I think he could be a wide right player. I've got Keane and [Paul] Scholes, Beckham and [Nicky] Butt, but I could maybe do with one more. A rotational situation has helped us through the season but it's an area where maybe we'll have to protect ourselves."

As for his attack, Ferguson contends: "I've got one or two young strikers I hope will break through into that group, but those four [Yorke, Cole, Sheringham and Solskjaer] are brilliant." Well, up to a point. The latter pair tend to respond better as substitutes than in the starting line-up and after Wednesday doubts remain about the effectiveness of Cole at the highest level. A move for a Chris Sutton or a Robbie Fowler should not totally surprise us.

That is all for the future. For the moment Ferguson can luxuriate in the completion of what many believed was an insurmountable challenge. It wasn't achieved quite in the style we might have desired but the record of Manchester United, losers of four of 62 matches this season and scorers of 128 goals, counters any argument that a unique treble is not a just reward.