Sam Wallace: Lessons learnt the hard way sink in for United

Ferguson set out to make history, but will have returned home with plenty to work on if his team are to reign in Europe again
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On Wednesday morning Sir Alex Ferguson still thought he had a team that would place him among the top European managers from right across history. By full-time he was back in one of those cold-sweat, pre-1993 moments, defeated by a football club, actually a football institution, which made his own look puny. What lessons can he take from Rome?

Don't get carried away

First we should just remember some of the great achievements this season of a Manchester United team who did virtually everything apart from win the Champions League. They made light of the demands of the Fifa Club World Cup, they saw off the best challenge in 19 years from a Liverpool team and all the emotion that entails. They came back in games against Stoke City, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Tottenham when it mattered.

In short, they are hardly the dysfunctional, bickering side that could not make it out of the Champions League group stages in the winter of 2005, Ferguson's lowest point in the recent past. They have won three consecutive Premier League titles and any analysis of how bitter their humiliation at the hands of Barcelona was on Wednesday night should be placed in the context of another astonishingly successful season.

And yet. Something was missing on Wednesday. The inertia of the United bench when Lionel Messi's goal went in on 70 minutes – Ferguson and his assistants sat slumped like moody teenagers at a bus stop – told you that on this night they had run out of ideas. No-one could argue that Ferguson should rip it up and start again but a new standard has been set by Barcelona and the old Scot would not be doing his job if he did not ask himself how he can reach and surpass it.

United cannot replicate Barcelona's formula

The preoccupation now will be Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, very much the men of the moment. How do United get their hands on two pocket-sized demon midfield passers? How much will it cost? Can they get a Messi too? But trying to replicate exactly another team's model for success, even trying to replicate the model of past United team's success, is dangerous.

Once the theory was that United would never prosper without a new Roy Keane in the middle of midfield. You don't hear that much now. Instead, Ferguson put his faith in equally dominant players, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, who are just as effective only in different ways, in different positions. Ferguson cannot conjure another Xavi or Iniesta, but United need more of those dominant midfield players.

Buy the best and trust them to perform

As befits a team that looked so competitive until now, this summer Ferguson has been linked with precious few big-name players. The interest in Karim Benzema at Lyons is longstanding, so too that in Antonio Valencia at Wigan Athletic and Bayern Munich's Franck Ribéry. Although, as The Independent has reported, Chelsea's interest in Ribery is the stronger.

These are all dominant players – they are not comparable in style to Xavi and Iniesta, but then who is? Those two are once-in-a-generation players and attempting to find clones would be foolish. Ferguson's policy has always been to buy the best players he can attract to United and trust they will flourish on the biggest stage.

Get Owen Hargreaves fit for next season

It took a couple of takes to deduce the identity of the bloke on the touchline before the match with curly black hair in a United club suit. A third Da Silva brother perhaps? It was the long-lost, lesser-spotted, too-often injured Hargreaves. One of the stars of last year's final in Moscow, he has not kicked a ball for United since 21 December and last night, for the first time in a while, United were missing him.

The notion that Wednesday's result would have been radically different with Darren Fletcher in the United side is hopelessly optimistic at best. With Hargreaves rather than Anderson you could see a case for United having more energy in central midfield. Hargreaves has been brilliant in patches for United but at £17m he owes Ferguson a big season in 2009-2010.

Disappointment hands Ronaldo reason to stay

On the occasion of one of his greatest disappointments, the behaviour of Ronaldo was encouragingly gracious. On more than one occasion he glanced up at the stadium's big screen for a glimpse of that face he loves more than any other. He swerved a handshake with Carles Puyol as the Barcelona team applauded United up the steps but that was understandable. He never gave up on a pretty wretched night.

A logical mind would say that joining Real Madrid now is an even greater folly, so lost in Barcelona's shadow are they. But if Ronaldo's reasons for staying at United were that they were Europe's premiere team, then Wednesday night has weakened that premise. Yet for all his histrionics, Ronaldo has never been less than professional. If he turns up at United next season there's no reason to doubt he will probably end up top scorer again.

Scholes and Giggs are approaching the end

Just because they cannot bound around after Xavi and Iniesta like they once did it does not mean that these two are redundant. Their gradual withdrawal from front-line duty has been well-managed by Ferguson although it would be wrong to say they have become marginalised. This season Giggs has made 27 starts and 19 substitutes' appearances; Scholes 22 starts and 12 as substitute.

With these two United giants now facing surely their last season at the club they hand over to a new generation who have an unprecedented chance to establish themselves in the United team.

New generation can close gap on Europe's best

Zoran Tosic cost £7m and his fellow Serb Adem Ljajic, who arrives next January, around £3m. For these young players as well as Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, the door is open. Adam Johnson of Middlesbrough is another Ferguson is understood to be interested in.

If they have to face Barcelona again next season then United will have to learn from Wednesday as they did with their semi-final defeat in 2007 to Milan, whom they subsequently eliminated the following season. The trouble with Barcelona is that they are better and younger than that Milan team and they could be around for a while yet.