Football: The Treble - Ferguson confounds us all

Fergie, we were thinking, had gone into the biggest match of his career by making the biggest strategic mistake of his life
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AS THINGS turned out, they couldn't give us memorable football. The chemistry was wrong. Manchester United versus Bayern Munich was never going to be a match to please those senses that are most ready to be stimulated by a beautiful piece of control or an exquisite pass. This was not a night to set against the European Cup masterpieces decorated by artists like Di Stefano, Cruyff and Van Basten. Instead the players gave us a piece of drama beyond compare, something so thrilling and so extraordinary that no one who was in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night will ever forget it.

There have been great matches before. But there has never been a piece of theatre like this, and in no other sport could it have occurred. You can be staring down the wrong end of three match points in a Wimbledon singles final and spend the next two hours stripping your opponent bare. But for Manchester United on Wednesday night, total disaster turned into maximum triumph in the space of 90 seconds.

As the final whistle approached, most of us in the press box were polishing regretful paragraphs pointing out the error of Alex Ferguson's decision to start the match with his wingers both occupying unfamiliar positions. Fergie, we were thinking, had gone into the biggest match of his career by making the biggest strategic mistake of his life.

And we would not have been alone, had the match finished on the stroke of 90 minutes with United losing 1-0 after failing to make a single worthwhile chance until the last 10 minutes, when their desperate efforts merely encouraged their opponents to reply by hitting a post and the crossbar. To imagine that Ferguson would have escaped censure would be unrealistic. But most of us were concluding that, after leading United out of the wilderness to three Doubles in six years, he had earned the right to commit one almighty goof. He would deserve sympathy rather than condemnation.

Looking back, it may be tempting to ask a series of hypothetical questions. What if Thorsten Fink had cleared David Beckham's first injury-time corner cleanly, instead of slicing it to Ryan Giggs, who poked it through for Teddy Sheringham to swivel and hit the equaliser? What if Ottmar Hitzfeld had not removed the experience of Lothar Matthaus from the centre of his defence with 10 minutes to go?

But there are no "what ifs" in sport, or in life. What happens is what happens, and the chances are that it may be the product not of random chance but of some deeper pattern. If the match lasted 93 minutes, then Ferguson would be entitled to claim that a goal in the 93rd minute was as valid, was every bit as much a result of his bold and unexpected strategic choices, as a goal in the sixth.

The deeper pattern was an unexpected but entirely logical product of Ferguson's decision to play Beckham in the centre of midfield. The displaced winger performed with the sort of heroic energy and commitment that he had showed in the FA Cup final four days earlier, but against Bayern it was more evident that his talents do not include the sort of withering interdiction which comes naturally to Roy Keane. Beckham's long diagonal passes over the defence found only the most inadequate response from Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.

But, crucially, United won a dozen corners - six in each half, nine from the right and three from the left (a statistic which suggests the relative degrees to which the designated wingers, Ryan Giggs on the right and Jesper Blomqvist on the left, inconvenienced their opponents). Beckham took all 12 flag-kicks, and virtually every one of them initiated some sort of threat, often producing clearances under pressure. Sometimes the failure of the United attackers to profit merely pointed up their own frailty - as when one corner from the right swept clear across the goalmouth in the 31st minute, and another from the same spot was picked off the grass by Oliver Kahn at the near post two minutes before half-time.

Bayern were careful to avoid providing Beckham with opportunities by giving away free-kicks in dangerous areas, but even when restricted to dead-ball kicks from the corner flags he was creating danger. Not until the second minute of injury time was the threat transformed into a goal- scoring chance, but the possibility had always been there and Sheringham's arrival turned it into something concrete.

At Wembley on Saturday, after Sheringham had scored United's first goal and laid on the second for Paul Scholes with a wonderfully deft touch, Ferguson was asked if the forward would have a part to play in Barcelona. "There's every chance of that," he replied. He went on to say that he felt "blessed" by the presence in his squad of four brilliant strikers. Two of them, Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the two he had left on the bench, came into the action to score the goals that gave Manchester United the European Cup. And if he cannot possibly have imagined the scenario of those final 90 seconds, then Ferguson has every right to see the action they contained as the fruit of his generalship.

No doubt he will be saying a quiet prayer of thanks for Hitzfeld's decision to remove Matthaus. On the face of it, this was the worst substitution since Graham Taylor took off Gary Lineker in Sweden in 1992, when England needed a goal to stay in the European Championship. You need a goal, so you take off England's best striker. You need to close a game up, so you take off the man with more expertise in that area than anyone still playing the game. "I feel for Lothar, because he made a great contribution in the period when we established control of the match," Hitzfeld said afterwards. "He wanted to play the whole 90 minutes, but he didn't have the stamina." Yet his departure robbed Bayern of a man who would still have marshalled the defence and helped Bayern to keep their concentration.

Hitzfeld, who was able to see far enough beyond his own bitterness to suggest that United had deserved to win, added that he hoped his players would not be traumatised by the nature of the defeat. He was thinking no further ahead than the weekend after next, when his team face Werder Bremen in a German Cup final which may reward them with what will surely now be an anticlimactic Double. But some of them may take a lot longer to recover. What, as they stood or sat or lay in postures of frozen despair after United's second goal, could have been going through their heads? How did they feel when the referee, Pierluigi Collina, urged them to take up their positions for the restart, knowing that they would be kicking off only to enable him to blow the final whistle?

History, as we know, is the winner's story. But without such pathos there could have been no heroism, without catastrophe no triumph. And if ever a mere game burst out of its boundaries to approach the proportions of myth, this was it.