Date: 15th April 2011 at 4:35pm
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When United last entered a European final, against Barcelona, I confided in a friend that I wasn’t looking forward to the game.

Destiny had always seemed with us for our greatest triumphs, in ’99 and ’08, but Barcelona were clearly playing the best football, and seemed set to confirm their place among the great teams by sweeping all before them. United had had little competition domestically, save for an average Liverpool side that were on a good run of form. That we pipped them to the title that year was not a great triumph, as when we had been pushed to the limit by that great Arsenal side in ’99, it was the avoidance of a total disaster and embarrassment had we lost to such a despicable rabble. And so I cited that reason for Barcelona winning – they seemed to have fate on their side. It just had to happen.

Our current team is worse, of course. So they say. The sheer terror instilled in the opposition of seeing ‘Ronaldo’ on the teamsheet has gone, and has not been replaced. Instead we had the sheer terror ourselves that we might see ‘Gibson 28’ or ‘Carrick 16’ in the heart of the team. Our player who came close to being so awe-inspiring had handed in a transfer request and was playing like Micky Quinn with clockwork legs. Our only plan was pumping the ball into the box, and our best ball-pumper was seriously injured. We’d displayed a shocking mental weakness away from home, we might as well have not bothered turning up if Paul Scholes wasn’t on the teamsheet, and even VDS was chucking them into his own net.

We know what happened next. Slowly, gruellingly, it all began to sort of come together as we scraped wins through any means necessary, rarely seeming in control of anything. We went unbeaten for a long time, and were in the hunt for the treble. But what an insult to the ’99 team if we were to actually go and fluke it. How could destiny smile on this rabble?

Well, as Gore Vidal said, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” Some would say that’s a particularly pertinent point given how much we’ve been helped domestically by Chelsea’s collapse and Arsenal’s mental fragility. But no team is an island, and they can only be judged against their peers. The most common are our most recent great Champions League-winning teams, and the best team around at the moment, Barcelona.

It’s time for a reappraisal of our current force.

In comparison to ’99, yes, the midfield is weedy. But since the purchase of Veron, our midfield has always been workmanlike. The reason for that is that we’ve enjoyed such miserly defences and powerful, creative forwards that we simply haven’t needed one. Our luck changed not when Ferguson improved the midfield, but took a leaf out of his pal Sam’s book and started to bypass it altogether. Not in that way, of course, but our frontline of ’08 was so fearsome that they didn’t need a midfield to help them out. Someone to sit in front of the defence and tackle and somebody to reliably get the ball wide or to the deepest of our forwards was all that was needed.

While some players have been considerably poor, such as Evra and Fletcher, Carrick has come back into form, and our defence is looking as good as ever. Our back line and forward players are the equal of the team of ’99. Our four strikers then were probably as good and as varied a set of players as you’re ever likely to see, but an in-form Rooney is more effective than any of them, and you can only field 11 players. The only derogatory comparison to be made is in that midfield – but Ferguson has changed, for better or for worse. The only team that wins Champions Leagues through gung-ho, uncompromising football is the team that is by far the best in the world at the time. That’s not going to happen with Barcelona around. The manager’s tactical mind is ten times what it was, and you would trust him to outwit virtually anyone on the big stage now.

A poor midfield which is utilised well and made up for elsewhere will be more than enough.

But despite all that, it hardly seems that the omens all point to this being our year, beyond it being a Wembley final. It seems destiny is against us again. We don’t look like the best team in the world. Fergie isn’t retiring at the end of this season. Hell, even Bolton have Nat Lofthouse to pay tribute to in the cup.

But to hell with destiny.

Destiny destroyed one of our greatest-ever teams, and should’ve destroyed our greatest ever manager with them, only for him to defy it. Destiny was against us, not with us, in ’99 – that team, defined by it’s two best players in central midfield, had to do without them at the climax. But we all know what happened then. And if nothing else, soaking up the indignation from all others should this team do it will be glorious. Maybe destiny this year is not for the best team to win it, but for a methodical bunch of chancers to upset the Spanish festival of onanism with two firm fingers up to philosophy and idealism. Sod your footballing ecosystems and your theatrical pomp.

Your jokes about our short journey to Wembley will fall on deaf, glory-soaked ears.

Piece courtesy of Callum Hamilton


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