The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Hearing a wise, sombre voice of experience gently intone these lines every November is always disarmingly moving. And so it was today at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month. Even the date has a twisted, bizarre symmetry and significance. You cannot help but feel refreshingly tiny and naive, as part of something greater, a unified more meaningful whole. You cannot help but feel guilt for getting so caught up and needlessly emotional about your trivial everyday concerns.
I arrived at the village war memorial in the church grounds a good half an hour before the silence was due to begin. So I crossed the road and sat down on a damp bench. From here I could watch the folk of various hues arrive and take their places. From what I remember of last year’s silence, which was rain soaked, the turnout was poor. Today however, despite a definite wetness to the agitated air around us, a sizeable crowd gathered. It was a disappointingly predictable bunch, consisting of the elderly, the vicar, the handful of children from the local schools compelled to go by their teachers. I was the only youthful attendee besides a young couple who also preferred to hover at the edges of this familiar crowd.
Of course many did not attend because they were at school or work and observing silences of their own and it is right that they do not greatly alter their usual daily routine, as the sacrifices were made in order to allow the continued existence of everyday life. But it was disheartening to know that acquaintances of mine, with nothing better to do, had stayed at home. My generation’s lack of a sense of history is depressing. And even if the stay-aways did bow their heads in a private moment of reflection, which is of course fine, it is a shame they could not make the trek to a public event to prove to the older generations and doubters that the youth of today are not so very different, and just as capable of respect. Whether or not we would have coped so well with the challenges faced by generations tasked with terrifying world wars on the continent, is another matter.
I am sometimes of the opinion that donning the respectful poppy too early can detract from the overall message of Remembrance. The overwhelming poignancy of the moment itself should be preserved and anything that diminishes its intensity is a threat to the longevity and colour of the tradition. However it is obvious in a modern world that the British Legion requires a good deal of time to build the profile of the day, to raise funds for those it still cares for today and to educate those youngsters completely unfamiliar with the concept. It is just sometimes a shame, purely from the point of view of a historian, that the vibrancy of reflections on the two great world wars of the twentieth century is endlessly diluted. Whilst the sacrifices of servicemen and women in modern conflict are just as worthy and brave, the motivations behind these conflicts are often more dubious and they do not cast the shame shadow as the two major conflicts. As well as remembering the cruelly cut short lives of soldiers and military personnel, the key message of Remembrance Day, it always seemed to me, was that never again would war be permitted to swell to such terrible, destructive size. By annually reflecting and re-examining the memories, we as a nation would never forget and strive for a peaceful world.
I have often felt adrift and without a purpose in this twenty-first century world of ours and it was easy to daydream in my younger days of living in a previous era; exotic times of unity and meaning and excitement and daring. But glancing at the faces of those so obviously personally touched by catastrophic events, I was reminded of why I should feel lucky. For the sort of national unity, togetherness and purpose felt during the world wars was forged from extraordinary hardships, and the dreams of people then are our realities today. We owe it to them to make the most of what was won for us and dream up our own inspiring visions of advancement. No doubt many are put off from attending a “service” at a memorial due to the smattering of religious attachments. Personally I do not find any sort of contradiction in respectfully staying silent during the prayers, bowing my head whilst others choose to say “Amen”. I found some of the rhythms and imagery of prayer adding to the tears welling in my eyes. Most of all, regardless of faith, the torrents of unified mourning, respect and sadness needed a focus, which the vicar and his Bible provided, at times. Powerful beyond words though were the lines, mumbled by all:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
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