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

May 28.

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

best team.

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

many achievements.

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

really have.

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

advance.

”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

Barcelona.

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

motivator.

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

memorable either.

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.