Football: United stride into cauldron

European Cup final: Ferguson taxed by choice of attacking partnership and midfield line-up to combat Bayern
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FOUR AND A HALF years ago, Manchester United left the Nou Camp in shock, traumatised by a football thrashing which questioned their ability to compete at the highest level. Hampered by the limitations on foreign players, they had been outplayed so comprehensively the 4-0 defeat was flattering.

With Barcelona playing football of a different plane to that seen in the Premiership one wondered if United, or any other English team, would be able to catch up. Tonight that same stadium bears witness to the fact that United, at least, are now equal to the best the continent has to offer.

In the European Cup and Champions' League this season they have played Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Internazionale twice each and remained unbeaten.

It has been a more demanding campaign than any of the previous eight English winners experienced and, if it is easier to enter the competition these days (neither Manchester United nor Bayern Munich, their opponents in the final tonight, won their domestic leagues last season), it is certainly harder to win it.

Not that the status of the pair, despite entering as runners-up, is questioned. Each have won their own domestic championships and, with United having won the FA Cup and Bayern in next month's final of the German Cup, stand on the brink of a unique achievement. Clubs from Scotland (Celtic in 1967) and the Netherlands have won "trebles" but it has never been done by a team from the four major European leagues, English, German, Italian or Spanish.

While Ottmar Hitzfeld has already released the team he claims will represent Bayern, Alex Ferguson, who is seeking his 28th trophy as a manager, has been more cagey. There are two areas of doubt about his team - who will partner Nicky Butt in central midfield and who will play in attack.

The latter is a straight choice between the accepted partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, which has produced 53 goals this season but is not meshing as well as it was, and pairing one of them with Teddy Sheringham. The latter, who played well in Munich, is likely to play some part but the gut feeling is that Ferguson will back his preferred partnership.

The midfield is more problematic with a host of options, all with drawbacks. David Beckham shone in a central role on Saturday but would be missed on the right, where there is no obvious replacement; Ronny Johnsen might be required at the back with Jaap Stam not fully fit and David May unconvincing; Jesper Blomqvist could cover for Ryan Giggs on the left but the Welshman may be restricted in the centre; Phil Neville was tried in the role, without conspicuous success, at Blackburn; Sheringham's attacking instincts and lack of mobility may leave Butt isolated.

Though he and Butt would be a limited pairing creatively, Johnsen is the most likely candidate, with instructions to pick up Stefan Effenberg.

"I think there will be goals and it could be a great game," Ferguson said. "Bayern are experienced but we have shown we can express ourselves against anyone.

"I won't regard myself as a failure if we don't win the European Cup in my time - I have been fortunate to have achieved so much else - but I would be gutted. It is what we've worked for. Last season [when United did not win anything] was the first major disappointment for many of these players. That can either kill you or inspire you. The players have got to grips with it and we have lost four games all season."

Three hours of football ago, on 16 May, United had won nothing. Now they are 90 minutes from winning everything. And, noted Ferguson, "It could all come down to a bit of luck."

That might be a fluke "golden goal" [which comes into operation after 90 minutes], an inexplicable error, or a rogue decision by Pierluigi Collina, the shaven-headed Italian referee who correctly sent off Paul Ince in Sweden in September but had a less impressive World Cup.

As far as the Spanish are concerned the main thing is that it passes off peacefully. Most of the 60,000 official visiting supporters are staying miles away on the coast but there are thousands more in town attracted by the 30,000 tickets sold to Barcelona members.

Whatever happens will be seen by the widest ever audience for a club match, with 200 countries taking live coverage. Hitzfeld said: "Every player knows he can become a hero. Two hundred million will be watching, so it's a fantastic chance to make a name for yourself."

Will it be Beckham or Giggs, Effenberg or Carsten Jancker, whose name is headlined from Albania to Zimbabwe tomorrow? Mark Hughes, who played for both clubs and Barcelona, backs United.

"They are favourites and deservedly so," he said. "When you talk about Bayern nobody springs to mind that you are really frightened of, but I'm sure when they think of the United team they can reel off five or six names to be very worried about."

Both sides are organised, confident and hard-working but it is this variety of attacking threat that suggests United, who will wear red (Bayern are in grey), will win. Even so, one suspects they have been practising penalties.

European Cup final special, pages 30, 31