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Old 27th May 2009, 10:47   #1
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Default Ferguson cool as history calls

Ferguson cool as history calls

Phil McNulty
BBC, 27 May 2009

Rome is sweltering in unseasonal heat, but as Manchester United fans draped themselves over historic monuments, Sir Alex Ferguson was an ocean of icy calm before attempting to build a landmark of his own in The Eternal City.

In the stifling confines of Rome's footballing Colosseum, the Stadio Olimpico, Ferguson carried the heavy load of history riding on the Champions League final against Barcelona with comfort.

Ferguson cut a sharp contrast to his young, intense Catalan counterpart Pep Guardiola, whose deep-set eyes explained why one seasoned Nou Camp observer warned: "Manchester United might win - but only over the blood, sweat and tears of all Barcelona."

It is against this dramatic backdrop that Ferguson will attempt to write a fresh chapter in Manchester United's story by making them the first club to retain the Champions League.

Ferguson's Old Trafford empire, like Rome itself, was not built in a day. Make no mistake, 35 years of managerial experience have gone into shaping days like these, along with what Manchester United will try to achieve against Guardiola's glorious, free-flowing Barcelona.

The Ferguson on view here, sitting alongside Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo, was the amiable, grandfatherly version as opposed to the thunderous figure that can - and still sometimes does - surface.

alex595getty.jpgFerguson threw an arm of encouragement around Ferdinand, humoured Ronaldo when a curve ball question came in Portuguese and even joined in the levity when the Champions League final formalities were briefly hijacked in the cause of democracy.

"How did he get in?" whispered a smiling Ferguson to a Uefa official after one inquisitor pleaded (in vain) for Ronaldo to be a standard bearer to get more voters out for the European elections.

Ferguson even laughed off a suggestion United's all-white kit strip, a carbon copy of Real Madrid's, might antagonise Barcelona as he said: "We're happy with it - and we're better than Madrid."

And, as always with a Champions League final, there is the sense of being at the centre of world sporting events - demonstrated as Ferguson dealt with questions from Sudan to Japan via Venezuela.

There is also a lavish supporting cast on this version of football's catwalk - Portugal legend Luis Figo was one, lurking in the shadows as Barcelona and Manchester United went through their final training sessions.

The presence of United and Barcelona in a purists' final, with help from the fates, only added to the sense of excitement in a hot, crowded room in the lower reaches of the Stadio Olimpico.

Ferguson was speaking on what would have been Sir Matt Busby's 100th birthday as the calendar once more appeared to be pointing the omens in Old Trafford's direction with a nod to the man widely accepted as the architect of the modern Manchester United.

He won his first Champions League on what would have been Busby's 90th birthday and there was an unerring feeling of destiny about last season's triumph in Moscow, 50 years on from the Munich air crash.

If Ferguson felt Lady Luck was stacking the cards in United's favour he did not show it, insisting: "This type of game may be beyond fate."

And yet there was a confidence and assurance about Ferguson that hinted at the force being with United - even laced with a hint of self-deprecation about those final, vital moments when he will speak with his players before they walk out.

"What will I say? I haven't thought one word about it. These things usually happen to me about three in the morning when I try to get some inspiration from the deep chambers of my tiny brain."

This may be true - but Ferguson has left nothing else to chance against a team and club he holds in the deepest respect, unlike their rivals "that mob" Real Madrid.

And there was no light-heartedness when Ferguson spoke of his desire to elevate United even further in "the pantheon of great teams". This is his mission and Wednesday presents another potential step towards a successful conclusion.

Ronaldo was a subdued, brooding figure sitting feet away from Ferguson, but the World Player of the Year's battle with Barcelona's tiny magician Lionel Messi provided a permanent sub-plot to the debate.

No-one made any attempt to separate the pair - but no-one made any attempt to disguise how they could mould this potentially glorious showpiece either. World class, match-winning operators do that.

Barcelona do not simply provide a romantic presence in this final, they present a huge threat to Ferguson's hunger to add another layer on his Old Trafford legacy - not to mention joining Liverpool's Bob Paisley in winning three European crowns and moving one closer to Anfield's tally of five trophies.

But if this pre-match curtain call was anything to go by, United still remain the biggest story in town despite Barcelona's city centre hotel having to be cordoned off as their fans gathered with messages of support.

Guardiola, steeped in Barcelona traditions and worthy of huge admiration after a stunning first season in charge, was greeted by only a third of the photographers that met the United trio.

He even had to give best to a Uefa announcement demanding the removal of a grey Ford Mondeo (blocking a set of gates in the Via Gladiatori apparently) before he could give his thoughts on the final.

Guardiola makes no pretence about Barcelona's approach - they will attack and hope the genius of Messi, combined with the spearhead of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, can work alongside the brilliance of midfield pair Xavi and Andres Iniesta to topple United.

Will Barcelona play the game of passing patience that presented them with that one, crucial chance for Iniesta at Chelsea? Will it be settled by a moment of individual brilliance?

Will it go against expectations and develop into a war of attrition? These are the unknowns that make this one of the most anticipated finals for years.

There is a fear of United's greater physical power among the Catalan contingent, with Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney spoken of in the same breath as Messi and company.

Ferguson was not sharing a state secret when he insisted attackers will win this Champions League final - and if his body language is a guide, he believes he has the greater weaponry at his disposal in this battle of European football's gladiators.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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