How do you reinvigorate a team which lacked energy? Add youth. That was Sir Alex Ferguson's response to Manchester United's leaden performances in Munich and at home to Chelsea on Saturday. The introduction of two men young enough to be his grandchildren, Darron Gibson and Rafael, respectively aged 22 and 19, for Paul Scholes and Gary Neville (both 35), lowered the average age of this United team by nearly three full years and injected it with vim and vitality.
There is always a place for experience, but football is increasingly a young man's game. Pace and intensity are the new watchwords. Players are fitter than ever before, pitches are more conducive to speed, and subtle changes in style and the laws mean the ball is in play more, leaving fewer opportunities for pensioners to catch their breath. The previous night, in Barcelona, Lionel Messi had made Mikaël Silvestre, who, as a 32-year-old defender, ought to be taking his first poignant steps down the far side of the hill, look to be well over it.
The difference the young men made to United's team was immediate. Two minutes in Rafael drove forward to supply Wayne Rooney (24) whose flick played in Gibson, breaking forcefully beyond the Bayern midfield in support. The Irishman added another fine goal to his burgeoning collection of long-range strikes. The goal gave both players, and the team, a confidence lift and they proceeded to be influential figures in the opening half. Gibson and Darren Fletcher (26) gave United drive and energy in midfield, limiting Bayern's ability to retain possession and build attacks. Meanwhile, Franck Ribéry, so influential in the first leg, was finding it impossible to escape the attentions of Rafael who, unlike Neville, was happy to get tight knowing he could match the Frenchman in a foot race. With Valencia and Nani, aged 24 and 23 respectively, twice combining for goals United looked home and hosed.
But the problem with youth is immaturity. Rafael's first booking was foolish, the teenager reacting petulantly to Mark van Bommel's unpunished challenge. His second was just as foolish. In Europe referees are quick to penalise players who pull back opponents (outside the penalty area, that is). Tugging Ribéry as he broke forward, in full view of the referee, could have only one consequence. Rafael will learn from the experience, but that was of little consolation last night, especially after Arjen Robben drove what proved the winner inside the post Rafael would have been guarding.
After that strike Ferguson turned to experience and summoned Ryan Giggs. Everyone was tired now, so maybe the veteran, in his 21st season as a United player, could turn the night back their way. Giggs almost slipped Dimitar Berbatov through with a few minutes remaining, but it was not to be. The clock was not just ticking down on the careers of United's long-servers, but on the team's Champions League campaign.