James Lawton: Ferguson must look to the spirit of Stein

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The Independent Football

There may be a little heat on Jose Mourinho after his rather bizarre behaviour in Barcelona but perhaps he deserves the benefit of a certain perspective.

There may be a little heat on Jose Mourinho after his rather bizarre behaviour in Barcelona but perhaps he deserves the benefit of a certain perspective.

He is, after all, still nine points ahead of the Premiership field, has every chance of picking up his first English bauble in Wales tomorrow and is just a 1-0 home win away from progressing in the Champions' League at the expense of star-spangled Barça. Even while accepting that his style will probably always require a constant diet of success, or become quite unsupportable, he has not yet exactly made a bonfire of the vanities. Indeed, the more you look at the week of his rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, the healthier his situation becomes.

Mourinho, unlike Wenger, has not seen his team bouncing around at the bottom of the football barrel where you find the worst examples of failed ambition and faint-heartedness. Nor, unlike Ferguson, can he be charged with an abandonment some of his best values about the way to play football because of some slavish, irrational elevation of the value of an away goal in European football.

Mourinho's antics in Barcelona, and those of United's goalkeeper Roy Carroll when presenting a goal to Hernan Crespo, of Milan, have drawn attention away from some staggering aspects of United's 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford. All of them centre on the fact that Ferguson, who often enough has seen the value of a United team performing with width and a proper level of aggression, seemed bewitched by the idea that the Italians might score at Old Trafford. Result: one huge absurdity.

It lay in the fact that after spending more than £70m on his strike force, he left most of it on the bench against Milan.

Under the watchful eyes of such Italian maestros of defence as Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, Wayne Rooney can never have looked more like a little boy lost, and this was a reality unrelieved by the fact that Paul Scholes, particularly, and Quinton Fortune did have the best chances to score outside of Crespo's gift.

The Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, must have rubbed his eyes in astonishment when he saw the United line-up. Instead of having to deal with a two-pronged front line, in which Rooney would have had the vital support of either Louis Saha or Alan Smith if Ruud van Nistelrooy was deemed fit enough only for a late assault, the Italians could run through a gamut of options which included the unthinkable one of attacking away from home. This they did with some relish and poise, certainly enough to create a frightening picture of what might have happened if the great Andrei Shevchenko hadn't been missing through injury.

What was the master of Old Trafford thinking about? No doubt he was back with his theory that in Europe you have to play a different game, but then is it really true beyond the need to control the ball in a way so rare in the Premiership? No, you can't give away the ball against a team like Milan and expect to get back almost instantly, as you can in the Premiership except when you're playing Arsenal on their good days and Chelsea. But nor do you have to bury instincts that have served you so well down the years.

For Ferguson there are surely two supreme examples of the value of attacking on full power in European competition. Both came in 1999, significantly the year United added another European Cup crown to that won by Sir Matt Busby's team at Wembley in 1968, one which featured the striking potential of George Best and Brian Kidd, who both scored along with Bobby Charlton in the 4-1 triumph over Benfica. Ferguson's supreme triumphs were in Turin in the semi-final and Barcelona in the final, when Juventus and Bayern Munich were not beaten by the subtle probes of cat-and-mouse but outright attack.

Both times United were obliged to go forward when their chances seemed to be ebbing way; both times United revealed the superior will when they were pushed against the wall. Now, no doubt, Ferguson will be looking for such an achievement in San Siro the week after next, but where is the logic of transposing the advantages of the draw? Why set yourself up in Old Trafford as though you were already in San Siro? Why start a game with one, outgunned striker and finish it with three? What happened to the principle of all great teams that you set the agenda, you beat the other people, play against them rather than the potentially mythic possibilities of an away goal. Away goals only count in the event of a deadlock; great teams don't play for deadlocks, they play to wipe the other team off the face of the earth.

Naïve? Unmindful of the realities of the modern game? You can say that if you like, but first you must trawl through history and point out a great team which ever played five in the middle and one striker forward? Interestingly, Celtic, the first British team to win the European Cup, in 1967, were confronted with what was said to be the greatest defensive system in the history of club football, the steel curtain laid down by the Internazionale coach, Helenio Herrera, who was known as "The Magician" and whose great gift to the game was catenaccio, the bolted door.

Jock Stein assessed the problem, narrowed his eyes and sent out a team entirely drawn from the environs of Glasgow and suffused with the belief they could outrun, outplay any opposition. Result: a moral slaughter. Yes, times change but some things will always be the same. It must be hoped that Sir Alex Ferguson, one of Glasgow's most successful sons, will remind himself of this soon enough.