Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Wembley awaits classic final between Barcelona and Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Anderson of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 04: Antonio Valencia of Manchester United celebrates with his team mates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Anderson of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's third goal with his team mates during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Evidently Tuesday night's events at the Nou Camp had drained the UEFA Champions League of its excess bark and fury. Manchester United's progress to the final was as tame as a snoozy old hearth-hound.

After last week's almost farcically bad first-leg performance from Schalke, it was always going to be that way. Schalke were little better last night. They wrapped that ticket and served it right up to their hosts.

Sir Alex Ferguson must have dreamed of the day he could consider making nine changes to a line-up for the second leg of a Champions League semi-final with a pivotal Barclays Premier League clash looming.

Tonight was that night, and yet despite United's second-gear cruise it would be wrong to ridicule the one-sidedness of it all, given how Schalke had obliterated Inter Milan to reach the semi-final stage.

Barcelona, by complete contrast, limp to Wembley counting the bruises from their two rancorous wars with Real Madrid, the damning words of vanquished rival Jose Mourinho ringing in their ears.

Whichever way you look at, none of the four legs of this season's Champions League semi-finals will go down in football history alongside the kinds of great games of which both of these sides have so frequently been a part.

What matters most is not how weakened United were, how bad Schalke were, how petulantly acrobatic Barcelona were, or how sore at being second best Real Madrid were. What counts is the conclusion of those conundrums.

Neutrals - if any really remain on this increasingly tribal football continent - can now relish a showpiece between the two clubs who, more than any other pair in world football, can be pretty much guaranteed to put on a show.

Deep down, it may be just how Ferguson would have wanted it as he chases an achievement which will arguably rank among his finest yet, and possibly hasten his exit into glorious retirement.

Ferguson continues to defy the critics who have claimed all season long his time is past.

United may be skating on increasingly thin ice in the Premier League title chase but their big-occasion class remains apparent.

There is perhaps no other manager in the game who would trust his squad enough to make nine changes for such an important game, no matter the first leg score nor the important domestic matters on the horizon.

But it is out of that ferocious loyalty, which so often sees him incur wrath for crossing the line of acceptability (and which, incidentally, is more ferocious than any of the vitriol spouted by Mourinho) that Ferguson hones his winning mentality.

Tonight, it was the turn of the much-maligned Darron Gibson to transform himself from much-mocked bit-part player into Champions League player of note with a first-half goal and a fine assist.

Such loyalty has paid off so many times before for Ferguson, be it with the one-time distinctly ordinary Darren Fletcher, or the temporarily out-of-sorts Ryan Giggs. He ignored the clamour for change and brought the best from them.

Ferguson will do the same at Wembley, where all the farce and fury of the semi-finals will have been consigned to history, and the two teams who deserve to be there most will surely put on a show to remember.

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