James Lawton: Ronaldo must repay his manager on the big stage and bewitch Barça tonight
One of the most enduring qualities of Sir Alex Ferguson and his unique place in football is his willingness to remake both himself and his team, day after day, season after season. It means that if he was to walk away, in glory or defeat, at the end of this intriguing campaign it could be said yet again he had fought the good and most mettlesome fight.
However, this would not also have to imply that he made the right decisions in last Saturday's pivotal game at Stamford Bridge, or suggest any approval of his apparently terminal belief that he will always be at the mercy of an elaborate conspiracy, which includes match officials, to do his club down.
Right now, the first proposition is extremely questionable and the second is as absurd as ever. Leaving out Cristiano Ronaldo, who 24 hours later would be crowned again as the Premier League's player of players, was certainly a perverse decision if you happen to believe most of what is said and written about the stupendously built and beautifully gifted superstar.
If the glorious picture of a rare football talent at its prime is true, if he really should be spoken of in the same breath as George Best, who at an equivalent age had a string of major triumphs behind him at the top of European football, including a winner's medal, surely Ferguson should have been able to send him in against Chelsea with no more agonising than when he picks out a bottle of Bordeaux.
This was especially so if you believed that Ronaldo, so long assailed by the charge that his most destructive performances tend to come against those least equipped to resist them, should have been pawing the ground. There was more than one reason to make such a presumption, starting with his desire to produce a memorable performance in one of the games which will decide his club's season. It was also a game, of course, that happened to be against one of those teams against whom his record is slight to the point of almost complete futility.
He did not distinguish himself at the Nou Camp three days earlier and here, surely, was both the chance to redeem himself in a match of huge importance and to create a vital easing of pressure on his team.
This is what great players are made to do. Certainly it was the responsibility accepted by his club predecessors Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles when they found themselves playing their 65th competitive game of the season when delivering the World Cup for England in 1966. We can argue for as long as we like the question of differences between the game of then and the game of now, but if we have to talk about the speed and the greater physical requirements of today we shouldn't forget that Charlton and Stiles had to churn their way to glory on pitches that often resembled ploughed fields.
For the purposes of the current debate we need only wonder whether it was really too much to ask of Ronaldo that he play the second of three vital games in six days. Ferguson, who for historic reasons is so desperate to add a second European title to his huge stockpile of domestic trophies, plainly believed it was, and that it was also true in the cases of Patrice Evra, who was in sensational form in dealing with the threat of Lionel Messi in Barcelona, Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez.
All four will now be expected to unleash their best against Barça at Old Trafford tonight, but perhaps what Ferguson is looking for most of all is now not so much recharged bodies as freshly stimulated minds.
United's authority has slackened to a worrying degree in the last few weeks and the injury concerns surrounding Wayne Rooney can only increase the sense of a team currently struggling to find momentum.
Withdrawing Ronaldo on Saturday only, it could be argued, invited Chelsea to build on that surge of new possibilities which have been building recently and came to such a dramatic point with the bizarre gift handed to them by John Arne Riise at Anfield last week.
Tonight, Barcelona must believe that they can build on the edge their vastly superior control of the ball created at the Nou Camp. United's hope is that the rested Ronaldo will leap from the traces and make his first great performance on the European stage. It is the least he can do for the manager who has invested in his care so much of his own reputation. There is another debt to discharge. This one is due to all those who argue, without totally convincing evidence, that he is indeed a man for all seasons, and all demands.
Ballack steps up to the plate as Grant's leader of men
No one is arguing that Michael Ballack, the kaiser of cool, isn't the man of the moment. But can he be the man of the season?
The positive evidence is accumulating. Ballack was impressive in a Chelsea performance at Anfield that some, perhaps because of the fortuitous nature of the goal that gave them such an excellent result, too easily dismissed. It was a team effort which started and finished strongly with cohesive, passing football and none of the desperation that the sometimes over-lauded Jose Mourinho brought to such critical situations.
On Saturday at Stamford Bridge, Ballack was imperious – and not least when he came to discuss his liking for the moment when he converted the winning penalty kick.
"Pressure? It is no problem, it was what we are expected to deal with," said the captain of Germany, who in some ways should be best remembered for his determination to stop the march of South Korea in a semi-final of the 2002 World Cup.
Ballack, apart from scoring the winning goal that carried his nation to their seventh World Cup final, also sacrificed his place in the ultimate match with a professional foul that saved the team and earned the praise of coach Rudi Völler.
Ballack merely chuckled at the weekend when he was quizzed over his exchange of views with Didier Drogba about who should take a free-kick. He said it was "normal" for heightened emotion to occur in players striving for an important result. It was all forgotten in the achievement of a vital victory, he declared.
Avram Grant, emerging in mostly one piece from the most dismissive campaign probably ever waged upon the manager of a major English football club with a chance of stunning success, is said to revere his most grown-up player. It is understandable enough. In his greatest hour of need, there has cometh a real player to his cause – and, more importantly, a real man.
Ferdinand's petulance is food for thought for Capello
England's Fabio Capello had left Stamford Bridge when Manchester United players were involved in their dispute with the Chelsea ground staff and a security force which, you are sometimes bound to feel, might have brought a particularly surly rancour to the Last Supper. Even so, he must have been reflecting on his leaning towards Rio Ferdinand as the new captain of the national side.
Ferdinand, as he has this season, played superbly but his loss of control, alongside that of England team-mate Owen Hargreaves, was bad enough to re-open serious doubts about his leadership potential.
Even before his inability to accept defeat, not to mention a perfectly reasonable decision by referee Alan Wiley, led to an apparently misdirected kick to the the shin of a security woman, Ferdinand was plainly invaded by an unshakeable petulance. It was a pity because a player of tremendous ability at last seemed to be growing into his responsibilities as a senior professional.
Ironically, in all the incipient mayhem, the statesman's role was played by the man who has suffered most by the rise in Ferdinand's stock, former England captain John Terry.
Terry, of course, has a depressing track record of failed control while wearing the armband of his club, but if we are right to believe Capello is his own man and will make his own judgement only from the evidence of his own eyes, Terry has to be back in the frame for the captaincy.
Indeed, in Saturday's disturbing lurch towards another bout of player anarchy, with Ferdinand and Hargreaves to the fore, Terry was surely the only authentic candidate.