Next Wednesday's European Cup final will, Sir Alex Ferguson said in one of the wisest utterances of his first pre-match discussion yesterday, provide salvation to a game which is badly in need of it. "Football always needs a boost," the Manchester United manager said. "We have negatives in the game that surface every year in all different ways. When we get a game of football that gives the real story of football, then we are all lifted by it. Manchester United and Barcelona can do that in this final and there's a good strong possibility of it being a very good final."
There are plenty of those negatives which he might have brought to mind. The very public manner of Carlos Tevez's falling-out with the club, persistent questions about Cristiano Ronaldo's future and the storm brewing over Ferguson's team selection for Hull City on Sunday and the damage it may do to Alan Shearer and his Newcastle United. Ferguson was indignant in the extreme when the opening question yesterday concerned forthcoming events on the Humber, not the Tiber. Sometimes the game does seem to be crowded out by its passing controversies.
But the delight Ferguson takes in playing a Catalan side whose history and principles he has always seen as a reflection of his own club's is tempered by an all-too-vivid knowledge of the attacking force United are up against and some late doubts about which of his own defenders will be available to counteract it. Ferguson's doubts about Rio Ferdinand may see 21-year-old Jonny Evans crowning a season in which he has proved himself as the coming man with a place in the starting line-up. For all Ferguson's belief in the Northern Irishman's wonderful composure – "I'd have no problem playing Jonny Evans in the final. The kid's had a fantastic season," he insisted yesterday – he saw with his own eyes what he is up against when he watched Barça's 6-2 defeat of Real Madrid on TV a few weeks back. "I said to myself: 'Christ, we have to play them possibly'," the United manager admitted. He has since taken comfort from the manner of Chelsea's display but he knows Evans, if selected, faces his sternest test against that "fantastic team and fantastic individuals."
But Ferguson has also seen Evans' development at close quarters, including his significant role at centre-back during the 14 league games which United went without conceding this winter. Evans played in six of those matches and those who fear for United without Ferdinand in Stadio Olimpico can comfort themselves that the side have lost only one game in which Ferdinand has been missing, all season. That was the 1-0 Carling Cup defeat at Derby, a result later rectified at Old Trafford. That United have collected 2.84 points per league game without Ferdinand in the side and 2.2 with him says something and the Evans/Nemanja Vidic partnership has seen Ferguson home to 10 wins out of 11 in the league and 13 out of 16 in all competitions this season, and their goals conceded record together is also slightly superior. Perhaps it was serendipity that Gerard Pique's despair at the thought of breaking past Ferdinand and Vidic into regular contention led him out of Old Trafford and back to the Nou Camp last summer. "We were disappointed to lose him, but understood his desire to go back," Ferguson said of the Spaniard.
All that said, the importance of Ferdinand to the task of deterring the interchanging Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and, possibly, Thierry Henry, is indisputable. The most challenging night of United's season – at Porto's Estadio do Dragao where the club arrived with their European pretensions so fragile on 15 April, saw Ferdinand return from three games out with back spasms to offer a masterful display. Now his calf strain has seen him out of another three.
It is the sense of calm that Ferdinand brings to those around him which is almost as critical as his contribution. Though Vidic collected the United player's player of the year award, it is the Englishman who has committed fewest errors, the ball which dropped out of the sun allowing Darren Bent to beat him and score for Tottenham last month a rare exception.
Ferguson will need assuredness on an occasion when John O'Shea, a possible target for the Spanish and a name already inked into Ferguson's starting line-up, might find himself up against Henry, though the manager insisted that the Irishman's reputation as one who makes up the numbers for United is unjustified now. Ferguson likened O'Shea to Denis Irwin, the defender he banked on for 12 years. "We used to say Denis was an 8 out of 10 every week," Ferguson said. "But he didn't get the celebrity that a lot of Manchester United players get. John O'Shea falls into that category. He can play anywhere for me. He's played in goal, all along the back-four, in midfield. Because of the injuries to Gary Neville and Wes Brown this year, he has become a permanent fixture. He takes his place in Rome because of his effort. He's ahead of everyone now."
Though Ferguson perceives more rudimentary qualities in this Barcelona side than the one United overcame in last season's semi-final – "Since Pep Guardiola came in they have become stronger defensively, they are more mature, have more consistency in Europe than before," he said – their "main strength" is in midfield, he acknowledged, and it is the buzzing presence of Andres Iniesta which has clearly captivated him in front of his TV screen.
"Iniesta is a fantastic footballer," Ferguson said. "He makes Barcelona work in midfield. I don't think he ever gives the ball away. Henry is a completely different sort of player, he's explosive. We know that from his days at Arsenal, he's always been a fantastic threat to us over the years. They pose different types of threat but Iniesta's quality of movement, his passing is instrumental to the way Barcelona play."
The United manager, who expects Guardiola to deploy Silvinho at left-back and Yaya Touré ahead of Carles Puyol at centre back, spoke eloquently about motivation ahead of what might be a crowning night. "There is an expectation that probably motivates me most of all and that motivation is for Manchester United to win every game," he reflected. "It is very difficult to rest, very difficult to take it easy in life. That suits my personality. Expectation and the possible fear of losing helps you to be on the top end of your game all the time." The fears are not relenting and it his defenders who can prove them unfounded.
Barça beaters? Trio that could be crucial
The challenge for the right-back is that any one of the Barcelona three-man front line might be testing him, as it interchanges, just like United's. O'Shea is not the most secure right-back at Old Trafford and may need the game of his life in Rome, though the confidence engendered by a regular place has been evident recently.
Has become increasingly essential dropping deep to support Patrice Evra during the season's finale and with Lionel Messi likely to provide a tougher test for the Frenchman than Theo Walcott did in the semi-final, Ferguson will be looking to him for defensive duties as well as a moment of genius to turn the tie.
His counter-attacking displays blew away Arsenal and he must now contend with Andres Iniesta and break up the periods of dominance in possession which can make Barcelona such a tough side to play. He seems to be the coming man, though. Hasn't scored in open play in his 51 United games but is a sure shot at penalty shoot-outs.