Do the real Manchester United dare to stand up and stay true to their attacking traditions in Wednesday's Champions' League final in Rome? That is one of many fascinating aspects of a potentially enthralling occasion. Emphasis, however, on the word "potentially"; it takes two to perform a footballing tango, even if each has an exotic Argentinian who is capable of whirling through the night.
When Barcelona have encountered the English over the last two years, they have been rightly disappointed at the latter's reluctance to come out and play. Chelsea, denied a place at the ball this time by Andres Iniesta's stunning late goal, had been accused of resorting to "anti-football" in the clubs' first meeting in the Nou Camp. Invited to dance, they slapped faces and kicked shins. Twelve months earlier, United successfully concentrated on keeping Barcelona scoreless over two semi-final legs, attracting withering comment from the beaten coach, Frank Rijkaard, about their lack of beauty.
Pragmatism rules, however, since the days when Sir Alex Ferguson used to adopt a more gung-ho approach in Europe and lost semi-finals to teams like Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. After last year's success over Barcelona, he identified counter-attack as the way to play against them and must still believe it, for all the talk about hoping for a great final.
Paul Scholes, scorer of the only goal in those three hours' football, last week admitted: "I know people have called it the dream final, but we would take a 1-0 win now. It doesn't matter how you do it. If you defend for 90 minutes and just get one chance, that will be enough for us. Obviously you would like to be involved in a great final with loads of chances, a 4-3 or something like that. That would be great but as long as we win I don't care how we do it."
The thing Scholes cares about is playing a part. Suspended along with Roy Keane for the extraordinary 1999 final against Bayern Munich, he sets no store by having received a winners' medal. Far more important was being selected ahead of Ryan Giggs for the Chelsea game a year ago but, ever the realist, he acknowledges that it is less likely this time: "I don't think many people will think I will be starting after not playing in either of the semi-finals or against [Manchester] City." Asked about his ambitions after 15 seasons, 604 games and nine Premier League titles, he said simply "to get back in the team".
Keeping a tight midfield trio has been fundamental to the turnaround in United's European fortunes and it will be essential to prevent Xavi and Iniesta running the game. Michael Carrick and the energetic Anderson seem certain to fill two of those places and Darren Fletcher would have taken the third but for his unfortunate suspension. That leaves one place between the "dinosaurs", Giggs and Scholes. If Ferguson sticks to his semi-final strategy, there will also be a place for Park Ji-Sung, so reluctantly left out of last year's squad, by playing Cristiano Ronaldo through the middle with Wayne Rooney out wide.
Patrice Evra, charged with subduing Lionel Messi again, made a point of mentioning the South Korean's contribution over the course of last season's two games. "Everybody said I stopped him last year but you have to think about Ji-Sung and the job he did," Evra said. "He helped me a lot. When Messi has three players around him it's not easy, even if he's the best player in the world. As a defender it's just a pleasure to face a big challenge like this because you play against amazing players like Messi, like [Samuel] Eto'o and my friend [Thierry] Henry. It will be a busy night but every defender could enjoy that night because when you finish, if you do well, you can be very proud of yourself. I need that challenge and I like to focus on that."
United have already confirmed that John O'Shea, the unlikely scorer in the first leg of the semi-final against Arsenal, will play at right-back, the only question about Evra's defensive partners being whether Rio Ferdinand can confirm his fitness at Hull in the final Premier League game this afternoon. He is confident of doing so, which will mean a disappointment for Jonny Evans, the young Ulsterman who admits he has already played far more than he was expecting after returning last summer from a second loan spell at Sunderland.
Evans' time will come, for he is bright as well as talented, and shrewd enough to learn from United's senior players. "I think you just follow their example. You see the hunger they have every day in training and the way they approach it and they've been doing it for years. Sometimes you look at them and think 'where do they get the drive and the energy from?' "
Although the vast majority of Wednesday's squad will not be involved today – to the understandable distress of Hull's relegation rivals – what most concerns Ferguson is the lack of time available to concentrate solely on Rome. It is unprecedented for an English team to go into a European Cup final only three days after their previous game.
"Barcelona are playing Saturday and if we had that at least we'd have had an extra day," Ferguson said. "We'll drive back from Hull and by the time they get home it'll be 9.30 or 9.45. Barcelona players will be sitting in their nice wee villas, resting up, watching the telly, watching Manchester United probably. Who has got the best advantage?"
While giving little away tactically, Ferguson is predicting a fine match, and a close one, like his previous finals with United, starting as long ago as the Cup Winners Cup of 1991: "I think you will see a really good game. There will be goals. It'll be close again but I'm used to close finals. Rotterdam, 2-1; Real Madrid with Aberdeen 2-1; 2-1 in Barcelona [against Bayern]; penalty kicks in Moscow."
But he declined to become involved in the debate about the use of Rome's Olympic Stadium, the latest of Uefa's unsuitable venues for the final after Istanbul, Athens and Moscow. As usual supporters of the two clubs have received far too few tickets and thousands will travel without one, creating more targets for the notorious Ultras of both Roma and Lazio, who will for once find a common cause.
It is the fourth time in a little over 30 years that the Olympic Stadium has staged a European Cup final, only one of which has not featured an English team, following Liverpool's two successes there. This English side, of course, are trying to retain the trophy, which was achieved a dozen times until 1990 but never since. That is surprising, even if the format of the Champions' League makes the task far more arduous; under the old system, United would have been the only one of this season's semi-finalists even competing.
Can they do it? They can, but the best chance is by marrying immaculate defensive discipline to the pace on the counter-attack that Arsenal couldn't cope with and Barcelona fear.
Three key battles
Lionel Messi v Patrice Evra
With Andres Iniesta also in the front three against Chelsea, Messi regularly swapped positions. Evra can expect to see plenty of a player of whom he says "he does amazing things". The tactic is to prevent the Argentinian maestro from cutting inside on his left foot, which may prove easier intended than achieved but could be crucial to the outcome of the game.
Xavi v Anderson
Little Xavi may surrender the captain's armband if Carles Puyol replaces the suspended Dani Alves at right-back, but he will still be the team leader further forward and he will move the ball around in bewitching triangles with Messi and Iniesta. Anderson, who was outstanding in the semi-final against Arsenal, must disrupt them with his tackling as well as foraging forward whenever possible.
Gerard Pique v Cristiano Ronaldo
United will switch their front three around almost as much as their opponents, but if Ronaldo is to start down the middle, as seems likely, he will be up against a former team-mate who was composure itself amid the mayhem of the semi-final at Stamford Bridge. A chance to measure Ronaldo against Messi on a night when it matters.
Steve TongueReuse content