Sir Alex Ferguson is contemplating extending his Old Trafford tenure to give himself long enough to dismantle the Barcelona dynasty and achieve his elusive goal of establishing Manchester United as one of the greats of European football.
Ferguson may be prepared to give himself as many as three more seasons – a period which, given the invincibility Pep Guardiola's players showed in their 3-1 Champions League final win over United on Saturday evening, may be required to prevent the Scotsman retiring one European title short of Bob Paisley's record three. Guardiola has committed himself to the Nou Camp for only one more season and that may provide Ferguson with one chink of light and an enticement to stay for longer.
"How long it lasts... whether [Barcelona] can replace that team at some point..." Ferguson reflected after his side's defeat. "It's always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time, [so] probably not."
His rebuilding for next season is immediate, with United optimistic that they can wrap up the £14m signature of Ashley Young from Aston Villa by the end of June, fending off Liverpool. Everton's Jack Rodwell, who has been on Ferguson's wanted list for 12 months, is another target as he seeks to reinvigorate the midfield which Barcelona ran rings around.
United's cash balance is approaching £150m and the club should have £60m to spend as it sees fit. Chief executive David Gill signalled 12 days ago that this would be a "busier than normal" summer. Goalkeeper David de Gea's expected £17m move from Atletico Madrid to Old Trafford should also be concluded this week.
Ferguson is understood to have been reflecting as recently as last week on the fact that premature retirement can be fatal for a healthy, active individual and the death of his own father, Alex, is forming an important part of his thinking.
"My father retired on his 65th birthday, and one year later he was dead," Ferguson said last month. "The worst you can do is put your slippers on. People say things like: 'I've worked for 45 years. I have the right to rest.' Not at all. One has the duty to keep active and in good shape."
Establishing United as a club in the pantheon of European greats rather than just "a very consistent team in Europe" as he described them late on Saturday night is Ferguson's greatest challenge, however.
It has simply been Ferguson's misfortune to run into one of the greatest forces in the game's history, just when he believed that he could elevate United to a position alongside the sides he considers to be European greats – Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool.
Ferguson clearly feels time is running out on him. "We really need to progress quickly to get to that level," he said during the closing stages of this year's Champions League campaign.
He is 70 on New Year's Eve and with the prospects of surpassing Barcelona within a year looking forlorn, his pursuit of a fourth European Cup for United may require him to be the oldest manager to lift the trophy. That record is currently held by the late Raymond Goethals, who was 71 when Marseilles won the trophy in 1993.
With his deep sense of football history, Ferguson will know that the great Helenio Herrera managed until the age of 71 at Barcelona.
Nani said yesterday that Barcelona were "much better" than United in the final and though Rio Ferdinand claimed United "had a good game plan and maybe we didn't implement it as well as we could have" no United player could proffer an explanation of how Barcelona might be defeated.
Wayne Rooney's temperament and leadership qualities on Saturday confounded doubts about his ability to deliver on the biggest stage. His partnership with the emerging Javier Hernandez may potentially be the most powerful on the continent next season. De Gea is the big gamble. Edwin van der Sar declined to pass comment on his successor on Saturday evening, though Ferguson believes he is right to put his faith in the 20-year-old.
Dimitar Berbatov's future must also be resolved. He travelled back from Wembley on the team coach but he did miss the club's post-match party. Ferguson has said the 30-year-old is not leaving but the humiliation of his omission from Saturday's squad could prove too much for him and a £10m offer could tempt United.
The club's scope to spend is created by the fruits of the commercial juggernaut the Glazer family have developed. Commercial deals other than the one tied up with shirt sponsor Aon are on target to reach £40m, compared with £24m last year, and United will soon recover the rights to financial services it gave to former shirt sponsor AIG.
The forthcoming renewal of the commercial deal with the club's technical partner, Nike, also creates the opportunity to extract better terms.
NUMBERS GAME: HOW BARCELONA DOMINATED
63% of possession for Barcelona in Saturday's match at Wembley. The Catalan side completed 667 passes, over double Manchester United's total of 301.
1 United's only shot on target was Wayne Rooney's 34th-minute equaliser. In contrast, Barcelona hit the target with 12 of their 19 attempts.
124 Passes completed by Xavi, more than any other player. Andres Iniesta made 98 and Lionel Messi made 83, with all three having over a 90 per cent success rate. The trio completed more passes than the combined total of the entire Manchester United team.
40 United's top passer on the night, Rio Ferdinand, managed only 40. A quarter of these were back to his goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar, as Barcelona pressed high up the pitch.
12 Number of passes completed by United striker Javier Hernandez in 90 minutes. Both goalkeepers made more than the Mexican, whilst substitute Paul Scholes made three more in just 16 minutes on the pitch.
0 With an aerial advantage, corners were expected to be one of the most important sources of goals for United and yet they did not manage to win one, with Barcelona having six of their own.
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