Ferguson enters Rome intent on making history

Manager warns Barça that United can retain crown to join Europe's all-time greats

Sam Wallace
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:59
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This time it is about a permanent place at the top table of European football. This time it is not about Manchester United coming out of the wilderness years to win the European Cup after another long wait. Rather it is about them establishing themselves as a dynasty, a dominating force so that when people look back upon this era of football they will think of United and no one else.

He has been around so long it seems churlish to think of Sir Alex Ferguson establishing himself in European football but if he wants to carve his name in stone on the biggest club competition in the world then tonight is the night.

Without being flippant, every big club – and some smaller ones too – have had their great one-off seasons and won this competition but none but the very best retain the trophy. None but the very best appear again and again on the list of past winners.

For a start Ferguson will equal Bob Paisley's record at Liverpool of winning the trophy three times as a manager if his United side conquer Barcelona in the European Cup final tonight. But that will not be the only record that tumbles. United will be the first team to retain a domestic and European title since Ajax in 1973. They will be the ninth team to defend the European Cup in its entire history. And that only starts to tell the story.

As he sat on the stage at the Stadio Olimpico yesterday, Ferguson did not try to play down the historical aspect of this game and, at 67 years old, in the 35th year of his managerial career, why should he? "Obviously it's something we have repeated. There are times this team should have done better in Europe," he said. "It's an opportunity for us to get that victory that would put us alongside a lot of great teams in Europe. This team has that kind of future. It is a young team, the kind of team that can do well over the next few years."

In 1968, United's victory was inextricably linked to the Munich air disaster 10 years previous; in 1999 it was about the 31-year wait that had preceded it; last year it was the nine unfulfilled years that had followed 1999. But this year in Rome, United have the chance to become something different: a team that could rule for years. No side has ever defended the Champions League in its new format.

"No one's ever done it before and we're good at doing things for the first time," Ferguson said. "It's interesting and unusual that no one has defended it since the Champions League began. During the 1960s and 1970s it was done regularly, there were cycles of great teams like Bayern, Ajax and Real Madrid, of course. I can't give you a reason for it of course but we have an opportunity to change that."

In an interview with the programme for the final, Ferguson, thinking big as ever, talked about matching Real Madrid's record of nine European titles. "Possibly not in my time, but it's something to aim for," he said. Note the use of "possibly" – exactly how long does he expect to hang around for? But this is a golden era for United, and if they win tonight, they move up to four titles alongside Ajax and Bayern Munich and behind Real Madrid (nine), Milan (seven) and Liverpool (five).

United will wear an all-white away strip and one of the few times Ferguson smiled yesterday was when a Catalan reporter reminded him that the last time Barcelona played opponents wearing all-white they won 6-2. He was talking about Real of course. "Aye, that wasn't a defeat, that was an annihilation," the United manager said. "But we're happy with the all-white kit and we're a better team than Madrid."

In describing Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's relative talents he said: "They can change a game and counter the impact of any coaches. No matter how you try to stop Messi there are always moments when you think 'Oh no, not again'." Strangely, with Ronaldo alongside him, when he was asked which of the two players was better Ferguson fudged his answer instead of backing his man.

Where will the inspirational speech come from this time? The one comparable to that line in 1999 when he told his players that if they lost they would have to walk past the trophy knowing that would be the closest they ever got to it? "I haven't thought about it, not a word," Ferguson said. "These things come to me during the night, about three in the morning when I try to get inspiration from the deep chambers of my tiny brain. At the moment nothing is coming back."

And then the biggest decision is his team. Does he pick Dimitar Berbatov in attack with Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on either side or Ronaldo as the centre-forward with Rooney and Park Ji-sung either side? If Berbatov starts, Ryan Giggs will probably miss out. If Berbatov is dropped, Giggs comes into the midfield trio alongside Michael Carrick and Anderson. It is Ferguson's big selection decision and in 1999 he famously got his team wrong.

Of course, every side that reaches this stage believes that there is something written in the stars for them, certainly Barcelona are convinced that they are fated to win their own treble, which is perhaps why Ferguson said tonight's game was "beyond fate". Both his previous Champions League triumphs have been extraordinary heart-in-the-mouth affairs. This time United want their victory to say something else: that this period of European football history belongs to them.

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