Ferguson feels hand of history ahead of 'final of the decade'

Barcelona are the world's greatest team – but the world's best manager is confident

It is 20 years and 13 days since Sir Alex Ferguson won his first European trophy against a Barcelona team in Rotterdam and although the Cup Winners' Cup was not quite the big time he dreamed of then, it precipitated a shift in both teams' fortunes.

The next season Barcelona won the European Cup and for United, what followed in the next two decades is the success story of modern English football.

Twenty years on and they meet under different terms: Barcelona might have the greatest team in the world but United have the greatest manager.

Yesterday evening, when he was asked whether this was the best final anyone could have hoped for, Ferguson went one better. "It could not just be the final of the decade, it could be the best final of the decade," he said. "The attraction of two great teams with a great history is obvious. It is an appealing final in terms of what could happen in the game.

"Anything could happen in this game. There could be a lot of goals, there could be a lot of excitement and a lot of good football, I'm sure of that. It is set up. The platform is certainly there."

Strictly speaking the decade is only one year old, but we all knew what he was getting at. Tonight at Wembley, on European domestic football's biggest night, the game's two best sides face one another. Barcelona, the favourites, have a team that stands comparison with the best of all time. United have a manager of unparalleled success in the current day who seems to have been around for all time.

In a question that borrowed a phrase from Tony Blair, the British politician Ferguson knows best, he was asked yesterday whether he could feel the hand of history on his shoulder. This, after all, was United at Wembley in a European Cup final, which for most people will always mean Sir Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton against Benfica in 1968. "Aye, it's certainly not Hampden Park," Ferguson said, by means of a joke.

"I think this is a symbol of English football. We have been here a lot of times and a lot has changed since the old Wembley. When we come here we know it's a big game and there's none bigger than this. I feel this is a right place for a final."

No mention of the history or the significance to United's past, which he tends to skirt around until after the big victories when he changes tack and positively wallows in it. But this is history in the making. This could be his third European Cup, putting him on a par with Bob Paisley looking down on the rest of his managerial counterparts of all time.

Yes, the hand of history will be on Ferguson's shoulder tonight, all right. It is remarkable to think how far he has carried this club since that first European trophy in 1991 when, he recalls in his autobiography, they prepared outside Rotterdam in the stadium of a village team. Last night Ferguson watched his coaches conduct a training session in front of a media presence that would dwarf that of 20 years ago. In the meantime the four Glazer brothers, whose family own the club now, posed for a photograph on the touchline.

When United won that game in Rotterdam the defeated coach was Johan Cruyff, who went on to shape the philosophy of the club that has made them so dominant today. In goal was Carlos Busquets, father of Barça's current attritional midfielder Sergio, and the following season Pep Guardiola would become a regular in the team. Now 40, he is the current Barcelona manager. Ferguson admitted yesterday that he tried to sign Guardiola when he later came to leave Barça.

When Ferguson mentioned that, it reminded you of just how long he has been around. He will need all of that cunning tonight if he is to beat a team as formidable as any that United have played in his 25 years as manager.

This is a brilliant Barcelona team which, having weathered United's early surge against them in the final of 2009, made Ferguson's team look so ordinary. Tonight, a slip of concentration from Rio Ferdinand, a rash challenge from Fabio Da Silva, a stray pass from Michael Carrick and Ferguson knows it could be the same again, with him helpless on the touchline as Barça keep the ball and the clock ticks down.

There are fundamental questions about how Ferguson will play this game. Whether he plays 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 when United are defending – with Wayne Rooney on his own in attack. Or if he is more adventurous and plays Javier Hernandez with Rooney in a more orthodox 4-4-2 system. About how he presses the opposition and tries – as all else have failed since Internazionale last season – to tame the Barça beast.

Ferguson knows that his managerial peers across the world, who hang on his every word, will be watching to see how the old master does it. He knows that the task is huge but not impossible and, by the same token, he does not want to be embarrassed.

The closest Ferguson came to answering the question about how he will approach this game was when he was asked whether his own team's attacking threat is overlooked. A fair question until you consider that, with 52 goals this season, there is a good chance that Lionel Messi will have scored more than the entire United first XI, depending on the team Ferguson picks tonight.

"As we always do, we recognise the quality of our opponents," he said. "I think it's unwise not to prepare your team for the way your opponents play, for their strengths and weaknesses. We do that with every team. Every opponent gets that respect.

"Of course we always focus on what we can do ourselves. We hope that we have plenty to offer. We have the players to do that – I don't think anyone can question our attacking players."

Even put through the Ferguson truth decoder that did not sound like a commitment to fight fire with fire – and who, really, can blame him? The brutal experience of that final in Rome two years ago burned him. Unlike 20 years ago, he has the reputation and the trophies and the wealth now. But the Ferguson legend has been built on nights such as these, the nights when it feels that everything is at stake.

'Final of decade?' - Last 10 Champions League finals

2001 (Milan)

Bayern Munich 1 (Effenberg pen) Valencia 1 (Mendieta pen) (after extra time, Bayern won 5-4 on penalties)

2002 (Glasgow)

Real Madrid 2 (Raul, Zidane) Bayer Leverkusen 1 (Lucio)

2003 (Manchester)

Milan 0 Juventus 0 (aet, Milan won 3-2 on penalties)

2004 (Gelsenkirchen)

Porto 3 (Carlos Alberto, Deco, Alenichev) Monaco 0

2005 (Istanbul)

Liverpool 3 (Gerrard, Smicer, Alonso) Milan 3 (Maldini, Crespo 2) (aet, Liverpool won 3-2 on penalties)

2006 (Paris)

Barcelona 2 (Eto'o, Belletti) Arsenal 1 (Campbell)

2007 (Athens)

Milan 2 (Inzaghi 2) Liverpool 1 (Kuyt)

2008 (Moscow)

Manchester United 1 (Ronaldo) Chelsea 1 (Lampard) (aet, Man United won 6-5 on penalties)

2009 (Rome)

Barcelona 2 (Eto'o, Messi) Manchester United 0

2010 (Madrid)

Internazionale 2 (Milito 2) Bayern Munich 0