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Football: Towering strengths of Stam United

IT SAID something about the rich memories on offer for Manchester United players over recent weeks that Jaap Stam was genuinely puzzled. "Which game?" he said when asked about the game. "Oh yes, Wednesday," he added. Perhaps his mind had genuinely strayed forward to the match against Leeds United today or maybe he was just a bit game-lagged. Which game? The Game. United's bulging history books will remind him in years to come.

Stam has spent most of the last three days being treated for a sore Achilles tendon, which might rule him out of the line-up at Elland Road today. The injury has been troubling him for a few weeks now, though no one from Arsenal or Juventus would have sensed the hindrance. Besides his considerable defensive skills, the big Dutchman has fostered an air of calm authority largely missing in the United side since the departures of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Roy Keane might be the spiritual leader of the side, but Stam's mental strength has been equally decisive in United's remarkable run for the "treble".

Far from being destroyed by Filippo Inzaghi's incisive running and finishing in the first 20 minutes in Turin or by the cruel deflection which caused the ball to loop over Peter Schmeichel for Juventus's seemingly decisive second goal, Stam rolled up his sleeves a bit higher and went back to work. The prospect of defeat, he said, never entered his head. If the designer chic has been flaunted by Beckham, Yorke, Cole and Giggs, the blue collars have been modelled by Stam and the indefatigable Keane. "I've never played in a club game quite like that before," Stam said. "Holland v Brazil in the World Cup semi-final, that was a big game, but this one matched that, not least because so many people had said beforehand that we wouldn't make it."

Most of those critics were looking pretty smug after 10 minutes. But, paradoxically, Juventus's early strikes eased the strain for United and Alex Ferguson. No longer did United have to think on their feet, an art rarely mastered by English clubs in Europe. Now the calculations were less complex. A tactical game plan was imposed on United which suited them and their tradition very neatly. Go out and score some goals, just as you did in Munich and Milan, Brondby and Barcelona. "It was a good thought to have," Stam said. "We knew we could score and we knew we had been down in matches before and come back." Too late, Juve sensed their mistake. "You could feel them getting nervous once we had got back to 2-1," Stam said. "In the back of their minds, they knew that we were through if we scored again."

For a side as experienced as the Italian champions, European Cup finalists for the last three years, yielding immediate momentum to United was an elementary error. Juventus sides of old would have killed the game off there and then. But this one sat back and watched as if bemused by the luxury of a clear advantage, their first in the whole interminable competition, as if they had prepared for every eventuality other than marked superiority. Only Edgar Davids tried to lift the team out of their slumbers and he was confined to Beckham patrol for the second half. Stam's belated harnessing of the darting Inzaghi forced Carlo Ancelotti, the Juventus coach, to bring on Nicola Amoruso, but instead of doubling Juventus's striking power the move halved Filippo Inzaghi's effectiveness.

"Inzaghi," said Stam "does not have the quality of Ronaldo. He is not the type of player who dribbles round defenders and scores, but he moves into gaps between a couple of players and gets his foot on the ball. In the beginning, the impetus of the team was not what we wanted. He had too much space but after the first 10 minutes or so we started to push up and their midfield didn't have so much space. Then he started diving and complaining the whole time."

United have won nothing yet, as Ferguson would doubtless have reminded his side on return from cloud nine. His prime task now is to keep eyes focused on the prizes, each one in turn. But his side must be feeling perilously close to invincible. After Wednesday night, no cause will seem lost.

Today, it is the turn of Leeds, an old enemy, to feel the force. One for the A team probably: Sheringham, Blomqvist and May. But such is Ferguson's touch at present, he could pitch in his youth side and still get a result. Two cup finals and Rupert Murdoch off his back as well. No wonder he had a smile as broad as the Clyde last week.

It would only spoil it to point out that Leeds' last appearance in the European Cup final ended in defeat by Bayern Munich 23 years ago. The referee disallowed a Leeds goal and their fans rioted at the final whistle to complete an unsavoury night.

Whether United can lay to rest the ghosts of 1968 once and for all depends on the depth of their physical and mental resources. The adrenalin of victory cannot stave off fatigue indefinitely and Bayern are likely to have their Bundesliga title in the trophy cabinet long before United can afford to relax. The smart money might go on Newcastle for the Cup, but United feel they have the measure of the Germans, not least in defence where a physical clash with the giant Carsten Jancker is far more favourable to Stam than another close encounter with the more mobile Brazilian striker, Elber, who is out for the season. If forced to deal, Ferguson would doubtless trade the Premiership and FA Cup for the Holy Grail of Europe. Without Keane, it will be a night for cool heads in Barcelona on 26 May.