Saturday, May 28, 2011

Champions League: Manchester United v Barcelona

The Champions League.

The tournament that best sums up all that is wrong about European club football. A grotesquely bloated monument to football's greed, its fiscal deities.

Yet still oddly compelling.

And tonight it reaches its climax. Wembley plays hosts to an unfettered orgy celebrating UEFA's money making fetish.

But also, we hope, a memorable game of football.

We have the favourites, Barcelona, considered by some to be the greatest club team ever to play the game, perhaps even thought of as the natural holders of this trophy.

And we have Manchester United. The worst United side for years we've been told. In Alex Ferguson an emperor whose wardrobe was not so much in transition as empty. How he's revelled in that nakedness.

A nineteenth English league title delivered with a nine point cushion. And a third Champions League final in four years. It's certainly a different way to measure footballing inferiority.

It's clear though that United have lacked fluidity, perhaps missed the je ne sais quoi of the real greats, at times this season.

We've seen that in both results and in Ferguson's continued retreats into the siege mentality tricks that have served him so well through years.

Pretty? Not always. Effective? 19 titles tell their own story.

A word here on Ferguson and the press. Does he treat the BBC well? No. Was he at his petulant, bullying worst when caught suggesting a journalist should be denied access to a future press conference after having temerity to mention Ryan Giggs? Yes.

Does any of this help Ferguson's image? Absolutely not. For a man to have achieved so much and still indulge in such pettiness is a shame, even if much of the hysterical outrage it provokes is engineered by people who just don't like United.

Don't let the press skip lightly off the hook though. They play Ferguson's game because too many football journalists have been reduced to filling the role of the simple inhouse scribe to the game's 24 hour media circus.

Argue, provoke or, in some cases, have the temerity to tell the truth and access will be denied. And access is all.

It's not a healthy relationship and it doesn't lead to great journalism. But Ferguson's behaviour is a symptom of that environment not its cause.

I read somewhere the other day that to deny a journalist access to a press conference would be to deny us, the people, the chance to get close to the game, to cut off a valuable source of information that the fans need.

Really? If these endless press conferences were so important then Ian Holloway's comedy routine, a routine that would play to empty houses in the worst sort of Edinburgh Fringe venue, wouldn't have been siezed upon as a highlight of each English Premier League week this season.

Football has very skillfully set its own agenda by constantly feeding the press what it wants them to hear. In turn the media have become convinced that we demand that their role is simply to play the middleman in a great conversation between "football" and the fans. They are terrified that access will be cut off. And that makes them even less likely to properly question what they are being told.

It's an open goal for football. Ferguson simply chooses to fill his boots.

Anyways, back to the game this evening.

Barcelona are favourites. Many predictions seem to consider a Barcelona win a foregone conclusion.

Understandable really. Here's one of the game's biggest clubs so often reminding us of what joy football can bring.

The majesty of this season's 5-0 defeat of Real Madrid will live long. So sustained is their excellence that there is a risk we will begin to take it for granted. We shouldn't. Teams like this don't come along very often. We should savour every moment.

In Lionel Messi Barcelona have a devastating weapon. His semi final goal at the Bernabeu proved that he can rise above his surrounds. That night he lit up a game so unpleasant to watch it had me longing for the delights of Alex Miller's Hibs team of the 1986/87 season.

That game also highlighted one of the problems Manchester United face. Barcelona are not such purists that they can resist being sucked into a war of attrition.

But even if you try to drag them down they have brilliance enough at their disposal to find the fleeting moment of devastating quality that will pull them free.

What Ferguson chooses to do with a problem like Messi is one of the big questions ahead of the game. Man mark him? Who wants that job?

I heard an intriguing theory based on the 1966 World Cup final when Alf Ramsay sacrificed Bobby Charlton's attacking threat and got him to shadow Franz Beckenbaeur. Step forward Wayne Rooney to do the same this evening?

It would be something to watch. But surely there is not parity enough between these two sides for Ferguson to give up on the hope that this is the final where Rooney can make his own indelible mark.

Darren Fletcher might be another contender. However well he would be suited to tracking Messi for 90 minutes or 120 minutes, this might not be Fletcher's time. The virus he has struggled to shake off has left him short of match time and, judging by his appearance last weekend, worryingly thin.

Ferguson would love Fletcher to play but it looks like such a decision would be based on sentiment and hope rather than any real confidence that he could perform to his best so soon after returning.

So the Messi problem offers an interesting chance to play the often fruitless game of trying to second guess Alex Ferguson. The manager has said, in a tone which I like to imagine hinted at Marlon Brando in The Godfather, that there is always a way to stop even the very best from performing.

But Messi has the talent to overcome even the sternest obstacle. And silencing his genius is unlikely to be enough to muffle the threat of teammates who are hardly cowed into walking in the Argentinian's shadow.

If Messi ever wonders which players are close to him at the top of the game he can just have a glance round at training. Andres Iniesta and Xavi joined him in the top three at the Ballon d'Or awards.

Everywhere you look United are faced with mountains to climb to reach the promised land.

It's impossible though to deny the stubborn resilience they've shown this season. And they are not without threats of their own. Guile in midfield, the electric Javier Hernandez, the talent of Rooney. And that work ethic.

Pep Guardiola has shown himself to be too canny to consider this one a done deal.

But it is Guardiola who has to be the favourite to repeat his trick of 2009 and get the better of Alex Ferguson.

Still a cautionary note must remain. Ferguson's career is full of moments when his teams shouldn't have pulled off this, were unable to win that.

He's got a terrible habit of delivering his greatest coups when they look most unlikely.