James Lawton: Fergie must fight Chelsea fire with skill and adventure of old

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Frank Rijkaard, doomed but surely not dishonoured at Barcelona after winning one Champions League title of imperishable beauty with players like Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi, may well have provoked the best of all possible scenarios when Manchester United and Chelsea collide beside the Moscow River in three weeks' time.

He may have painted the picture of an endgame that will be won not by the smart but the brave.

Rijkaard, a member with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten of the Dutch football intellectual storm troop unit who annexed the European Cup on behalf of Milan, did it with his statement in defeat at Old Trafford.

He said that the Premier League's march to its first ever guaranteed success in the biggest game in club football – and a second victory in nine years of ever growing power and stupendous wealth – still awaits a statement of tactical courage and natural born aggression outside the smoke and fire of its own programme.

It is a rebuke that cannot be easily discounted on the road to Moscow.

And nowhere less so, you have to suspect, than in the natures of Sir Alex Ferguson and the players of Chelsea he must now fear most for their willingness to inflict themselves beyond the kind of strategic straitjacket Liverpool's Rafa Benitez so vainly sought to impose at Stamford Bridge this week.

Players like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and John Terry form an international force, maybe, but it's one which has precisely those classic qualities of the English game which Rijkaard was saying have been subdued by a new emphasis on caution.

Against Liverpool, these men were simply too big for the constraints Benitez attempted to apply as he had done so successfully in the past, against Chelsea and Juventus, Internazionale and, most recently, an Arsenal team who of all England's challengers sought to reproduce in Europe the game that for much of the season enchanted at home.

It means, surely, that having negotiated his way to his second European Cup final with an absolute refusal to offer gifts to any opposition, Ferguson may now be on the point of reverting to his oldest instincts. The ones, these are, which will always be the glory of his reign at Old Trafford whatever happens in Russia – the ones which have always proclaimed that football is nothing if it is not at some point waged with skill and adventure and on the widest front.

Players like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo did not happen under the tutelage of a man who ultimately believed in backing his way to the peaks of the game.

Now, chastened by the disruptive defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, Fergie must surely know that if he is to beat Chelsea on a night which, if he is so inclined, could produce the perfect and final entrenchment of all his achievements, he has to have the unfettered best of Rooney and Ronaldo and the kind of re-statement of quality made by Scholes in the defeat of Barça. Certainly he can believe in his defence, in which Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Wes Brown produced epics of defiance against the relentlessly lapping brilliance of Messi. But can he believe enough in the ability of Rooney and Ronaldo to produce the kind of performances that came, most notably, from Drogba and Lampard against Liverpool?

It is a question that must go into the very bones of his hopes. We are not talking about some reckless throwing in of the most expensive casino chips. We are discussing the calculated courage that will always distinguish the memory of Ferguson's great friend and hero, Jock Stein.

It was another age, no doubt, when in 1967 Stein threw the Celtic players he had gathered from within a 30-mile radius of Glasgow against the most vaunted coach in football, "The Magician", Helenio Herrera, and his bolted door of an Internazionale defence. Stein delivered rather more than the first British triumph in the European Cup, an inspired, unforgettable foray that was followed, in a largely similar spirit, by Sir Matt Busby's United the following year.

Stein helped create the mystique of power and spirit emanating from the mists of Britain which 20 years later still haunted another coach of Barcelona, the great Johan Cruyff.

In some ways Rijkaard this week was merely echoing the thoughts of his legendary countryman. Cruyff said: "However good an English team is they will always have an additional advantage. It is that European players know that their English opponents will come at them in the belief they will win, and they can always be guaranteed never to stop fighting. They have a natural aggression that they are born with. If it ever goes, English football will lose its most valuable dimension."

If there was a single quality possessed this week by Chelsea, managed by the Israeli Avram Grant who cannot achieve a single victory free of the suggestion that it has little or nothing to do with him, and owned by the oligarch Roman Abramovich who apart from donating a mountain of roubles, long ago smashed every fundamental principle of a winning organisation, it was one of self-belief.

Plainly they felt, man for man, superior to Liverpool and when doubt was cast upon this conviction by the second-half strike of Fernando Torres, it provoked only a re-doubling of their effort. Lampard put aside, in a small fraction of space and time, the bleakness that has come to him with the loss of his mother. Drogba pursued his vendetta against Benitez with unstoppable zeal. The formidable Essien has rarely looked more of a force of nature.

All this, no doubt, will have been absorbed by the watching Ferguson. The suspicion here is that it will have persuaded him that, for all the obdurate and silky brilliance of Ferdinand and the re-instated iron of Nemanja Vidic, he is unlikely to stifle for an entire 90 minutes the spread of such Chelsea fire.

So what does he do? He does, you have to guess, what Big Jock did no more romantically than the average street fighter. He will take off the reins in pursuit of the greatest victory of his life. He will be true to his deepest instincts and the meaning of his unique career.

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