Quiet man Park leads United's unsung army
South Korean prepared to do whatever job is required as Red Devils aim to prove to Robben that they're more than a 'one-man team'
Tuesday 30 March 2010
The irony was unmistakable yesterday when Sir Alex Ferguson, with Park Ji-sung sitting at his side, was asked to respond to Arjen Robben's suggestion that Manchester United are a "one-man team". Ferguson, speaking with the languid air of one who knew Robben had just given his side a major piece of motivation, agreed that Rooney was having "an exceptional season and is one of the best players in the world" but invited consideration of his other players.
Ferguson named Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic and not Park, and though the South Korean was characteristically quiet at the press conference table, his football has talked for him in the last few months.
Park – part of a contingent of squad players who have demonstrated that Robben is out of touch when he says "Rooney seems to be their only solution, what about if he doesn't function?" – may be asked to fulfil a role on United's left tonight, to deter the threat posed by Franck Ribéry, if the Frenchman starts. Or else he might be in the new central midfield role which he took to so quickly in an outstanding performance against Liverpool at Old Trafford nine days ago. "The more important for me is to play, to be on the pitch, it does not matter which position. I have to do my best 100 per cent to follow Mr Ferguson's orders," Park said.
The quaint way he addressed the manager revealed a deference but Park is a far feistier individual than many realise. He has always said he owes much to Guus Hiddink, the coach under whose tutelage his career began to blossom with the South Korean national side from 2000 and who later took him to PSV Eindhoven, where Ferguson spotted him in the 2005 Champions League semi-final against Milan.
But Park had the inner resolve to resist Hiddink's demands that he should turn down Ferguson, stay with him in the Netherlands for three years more and wait for Chelsea and Roman Abramovich – with whom Hiddink had links – to arrive. The same self-belief was also needed to overcome the flak he took from Dutch fans after arriving in the southern Netherlands. He needed a knee operation within two months and then struggled for form. "I thought I could show that I am an honest person and if they still boo me then my quality is not enough to play in Europe," Park recently reflected on that particular period.
He was also at pains to point out yesterday that, at 29, he is not the ingénu some may also perceive him to be. "I changed my role [to central midfield against Liverpool] but it does not matter for me," he said. "Because I have experience there with the national team and PSV."
So spoke a player for whom this summer's World Cup finals will be his third – putting him well ahead of Wayne Rooney for international pedigree.
Though Hiddink once observed that Park "does the dirty work for the bigger stars" – perhaps what Ferguson has in mind at the Allianz Arena tonight – it was a mark of his intelligence, discipline and technical ability that he should have played such a part in the midfield dominance which made the Liverpool game United's.
"He's up there with the best in the world for movement and so direct and intelligent with his runs off the ball," Ferdinand said of Park last season. Goals against Milan and Arsenal in recent weeks, before the diving header against Liverpool, underline why Ferguson often selects him for the tough, attritional, continental games like tonight's. The maths tell a story: Park cost £4m; Liverpool's Alberto Aquilani £20m.
Park is not the only individual who gives the lie to Robben's claim. Nemanja Vidic's display in the 4-0 win at Bolton on Saturday was his best of the season. "He was the best centre-half in the world [that day]. I've not seen any other games but I know it was the best," Ferguson enthused yesterday.
Darren Fletcher's performance against Liverpool, including the impeccable cross for Park's goal, underlined his claim to be player of the season after Rooney. Antonio Valencia can hardly be described as a squad player but among the support acts his supply line to Rooney makes him a contender for signing of the season. Ryan Giggs' form before breaking his arm against Aston Villa last month was also breathtaking.
Park just fits in where he can among this support cast and his manager is keeping him guessing in Germany. "He doesn't know if he is playing yet!" he said, grinning at him. "We are very pleased with his performance in the Milan and Liverpool games. No matter where he plays tomorrow he will do well for me."
Triumph and tears in 1999 United's European smash and grab
Who will ever forget the night when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich with two injury-time goals to lift the European Cup in 1999? Here one of the game's greatest ever comebacks is recalled by some of the key participants.
Ryan Giggs Record 126 European appearances for Manchester United
"I can't believe it's 11 years ago, it was one of the greatest nights of my life and for many fans too and it brings back a lot of happy memories."
Peter Schmeichel United's captain for the game
"I didn't want to be the man to lift the Champions League trophy; I wanted Sir Alex to be there, because he was the one who gave me and everyone else in the team the chance. This [lifting the European Cup] was the last thing I did for Manchester United and I could have not asked for a better ending to my career.
Franz Beckenbauer Bayern Munich's president at the time
"I have been in football for a very long time, 50-55 years, starting from a trainee up to now, but I have never seen a match like that, where a team was the certain winner and were almost holding the trophy in their hands, and then lost it in injury time."
Dennis Irwin United left-back
"Winning it in 1999 became an obsession because by that stage we were notching up several Leagues and had never really done much in Europe."
Lennart Johansson Uefa president 1990-2007
"I looked out on to the pitch and I was confused. I thought, it cannot be, the winners are crying and the losers are dancing."
Oliver Khan Bayern's defeated goalkeeper
"I believed I practically had the Cup in my hands. The whole dream just burst apart in the space of a few seconds. After the final whistle I felt empty, an unconfined emptiness welling inside me."
Lothar Matthaus Bayern midfelder
"[After the game] I can't remember if Omar Hitzfeld [manager] said anything and I can't even remember who was sitting next to me. Everybody was so stunned."
Sammy Kuffour Bayern's tearful defender
"At the final whistle I just thought, 'Only God knows why this has happened.' We had done our best, we had hit the crossbar [at 1-0 up], and they had been lucky to equalise."
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