Man Utd: be scared, very scared, of Barca
If Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was on
Twitter, what thoughts would he have shared from watching Barcelona
peel apart Real Madrid?
”Help! I’m next …” perhaps? Or ”Anyone want to take my
place in goal in the Champions League final?”
Van der Sar is no chicken, of course. The truth is that he’ll be
relishing the chance to end his trophy-studded career at Wembley on
Nor is United manager Alex Ferguson in the habit of telling his
players to be scared … very, very scared. But that doesn’t mean
that we cannot be scared for them.
Assuming United finishes off German side Schalke in their
semifinal second leg on Wednesday, which should not be too hard
given its two-goal cushion from the first match, Ferguson will have
three weeks to formulate a cunning masterplan to beat the world’s
That will need to be a true diamond of a plan. Three weeks may
not be long enough.
It’s been said before, it will be said again, but it can’t be
said enough: This lot from Barcelona are seriously good.
Like his coach Pep Guardiola, we all long ago exhausted our
stock of compliments for Lionel Messi, the Argentine who may be
small but will be an Everest for Ferguson to overcome at Wembley.
Diego Maradona’s heir was the difference in the two-game semifinal,
with his two goals in the first leg making a Madrid rebound
practically impossible in Tuesday’s return game.
”Our flagship,” Guardiola calls him.
If Ferguson somehow finds the anti-Messi Kryptonite that eluded
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and beats Barcelona with his team that
is far from the best he has managed in his quarter-century at
United, it could rank as arguably the greatest of the Scotsman’s
Ferguson will be crossing all of his fingers and toes that Rio
Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic aren’t injured in United’s last three
Premier League fixtures. Without their partnership, the tough task
of defending against Messi’s heartstopping runs and prescient
passes could be impossible. And since Messi pops up everywhere,
Ferguson could really do with a young Paul Scholes or a Roy Keane
to police the midfield with iron-booted authority, which he doesn’t
Ferguson also will be hoping that Chelsea’s late charge for the
English Premiership title falters this weekend at Old Trafford. If
United loses that match and the title race remains poised on a
knife’s edge up to the last round of games on May 22, United could
be short of time to rest key players for the Champions League final
six days later.
Barcelona, on other hand, could clinch its third consecutive
Liga title this weekend if it beats Espanyol at the Camp Nou and
Madrid fails to win at Sevilla. Guardiola could have not only the
better team at Wembley but the fresher one, too. He’s already
planning to give his players at least one week off, maybe more,
ahead of May 28.
Ferguson has the miracle of 1999 – when two injury-time goals
against Bayern Munich secured his first Champions League title – to
remind himself and his team that no outcome is written in
”Football, bloody hell!” were his immortal words after that
unlikely win. That memorable final was played at the Camp Nou,
where Madrid on Tuesday never looked likely to pull off a similar
feat and stop Barca from advancing. The 1-1 draw gave Barcelona a
3-1 win over the two games.
Those who sympathize with Mourinho’s conspiracy theories that
Barcelona gets help from and is protected by referees and the other
powers in football will argue that Madrid should have had a goal in
the first minute of the second half.
They would be right.
Gonzalo Higuain’s strike off a neat pass from Cristiano Ronaldo
should have counted. Instead, Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere
inexplicably faulted Ronaldo for falling into the path of
Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano, tripping him, after a shoulder-barge
from Gerard Pique. Bizarre.
Still, even if the goal had stood, Madrid never looked like it
would become only the third team in Champions League history to
advance from a knockout stage after losing the first leg at home.
Ronaldo, in particular, rarely seemed to have much belief that the
unlikely was possible – this when, more than ever, Madrid needed a
special night from its star player. Ronaldo, again this season, is
not proving to be Messi’s equal. In 90 minutes Tuesday, Madrid had
just one shot on target – from Marcelo for the second-half goal
that canceled out Pedro Rodriguez’s score-opening strike for
If not for great goalkeeping from Iker Casillas, Madrid could
have been several goals down in the first half. A five-minute spell
when Casillas saved two shots from Messi and acrobatically got a
finger to a strike from David Villa should have provoked beads of
sweat on Van der Sar’s brow.
The absence of Mourinho, banned from the touchline and Madrid’s
dressing room for disrespecting the referees in the first leg, was
clearly felt. Madrid looked leaderless without its master
Like Guardiola, we can breathe a sigh of relief that this series
of four Madrid-Barcelona games in 18 days is over. The two sides
brought the worst out of each other. Tuesday’s game wasn’t as ugly
as the ”Hell Classico” in Madrid last week. But it wasn’t
A United-Barcelona final should be better. Ferguson isn’t going
to employ the stifling and negative defensive tactics that Mourinho
stooped to. He has more faith in Wayne Rooney and whoever will
partner him in United’s attack than Mourinho showed in his own
forwards against Barcelona.
”A great team with a lot of quality up front and a great
manager,” Barcelona’s Xavi says of United. ”Should be a great
final, no doubt.”
Hard to see United winning, though.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.