Following his team’s imperious dissection of Chelsea on Sunday, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson appeared to look forward to the Champions League final later this month with a degree of caution.
‘We have got three weeks to plan for the Barcelona game and we will need that,’ said Ferguson.
Given the lesson the Spanish team handed United in beating them 2-0 in the Rome final of 2009, Ferguson is perhaps right to be respectful. Nevertheless, for the first time in a long time United have the look of a team Barcelona themselves may have to spend some time worrying about.
Sunday’s win over Chelsea was arguably United’s best performance of the season. And with the European final just two-and-a-half weeks away and the league title all but won, Ferguson’s team could not have picked a better moment to hit the kind of form we have been waiting to see from them all season.
Speaking to an American radio station, Ferguson said: ‘Everyone has acknowledged how great a team Barcelona are but Manchester United are in this final.
‘Everyone has said this is not a good Manchester United team.But we have scored more goals than anyone else. Our home form has been magnificent. We are undefeated in Europe.
‘We are in the Champions League final and we will win the league by getting one more point.
‘What we have to do is find a solution to the Xavi-Messi-Iniesta problem.
‘Everyone is searching for that because they are outstanding footballers.
‘But we have players who can cause any team a lot of bother and hopefully those attacking players will give Barcelona problems that everyone thinks they are going to give us.’
In Spain, Barcelona find themselves in the same situation as United. Needing just a point to wrap up their 21st La Liga title, thoughts have already turned to Wembley. The Spanish champions’ manager Pep Guardiola said: ‘They (United) played a Champions League semi-final (against Schalke) with a team full of reserves and they won 4-1. They have a great squad and extraordinary players.’
Despite a defensive injury crisis that saw Barca forced to play midfielder Yaya Toure at centre back in Rome, Guardiola’s team shut out a United side featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney with remarkable ease.
This time, United will have a more varied attacking plan. Against Chelsea, for example, United carried a threat from every angle. Rooney is approaching the end of the season in much-improved form and will be vital at Wembley.
Nevertheless, United will also look to the less heralded figures of Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia as they try to break the Barcelona code. South Korean Park was an irresistible force against Chelsea. Valencia, meanwhile, is playing well enough to keep Nani out.
When it comes to Ferguson’s selection for the final, only two places are realistically up for grabs. Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Valencia, Park and Rooney are all certain starters.
The only debate centres on who plays at right back and whether Ferguson will be bold enough to start with another forward in Javier Hernandez or bring in the fit-again Darren Fletcher and go with a five-man midfield.
With the title all but won, it is unlikely we will see United’s first XI again until kick-off at Wembley. Ferguson will be careful as his team’s games against Blackburn and Blackpool will influence the relegation fight, but ultimately he will do what is right for his club.