Man. U vs Barca - Not so Fergilicious, Again:
Deja Vu of a Spoiled Champions League Final
It is the epitome of the Champions League.
For purists, it's football at its zenith.
It is football enormity.
Yet these most heralded of all match-ups—in terms of their competitiveness, epic potentiality, and substance as a spectacle--have fallen flat, twice. I blame one man: Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Game’s Best Ego-Whacker
The possibly insane, screeching Asian child with the padded whacker (‘Is that a Man U polo he's wearing?’) represents Ferguson's vigilance over his teams’ emotional balance, while the crocodiles—obviously—are the manifestation of the uglier side of players' egos attempting to rear their heads and get away with it.
Over the years, Fergie has been able to prove without a shadow of a doubt that he--and no individual hotshot or dilettante owner--is responsible for Manchester United's unmatched success in what is now arguably the strongest football league in the world. Since the 1992 founding of the Premier League, his Manchester United has captured 12 titles, while his closest rival, if you can call him that, Arsene Wenger—trophy-less in the past 6 years—has 4. (A side note: can anyone imagine Ferguson allowing his star player to sulk his way through almost the entire season as Fabregas did this year?)
Sir Alex's record becomes increasingly impressive as we see managers sacked with increasing regularity. Coaches seem, year after year, further devalued in their perpetual struggle with both players and owners for the reins to the club, to the point where there’s an emerging assumption that if the proper players are bought, all the manager need do is cheer them on.
On one hand, simply playing your best players and then screaming at the TV is something many simpleton fantasy managers think they can do to great effect, and anyone who’s coached the game knows it’s not even close to that simple. On the other hand, when the big game comes, most coaches hope they’ve got all their talent both focused and available...
Ferguson doesn’t seem to care. He seems to be so busy still ego-whacking, that when the one team in the world comes knocking that can whoop his team even when his current line-up is gelling, he seems to fail to look up.
Can Anyone Even Beat This Barca Team?
While Mourinho’s win-at-all costs tactics have garnered one UCL victory over Barca (in the 2010 semis), and a chorus of critics (in the 2011 semis), when Fergie’s teams get mauled by Barca it seems that the story is that Barca are just too good. For us to agree, we must assume that the 2010 Inter team contained significantly more talent than the 2011 Man. U. squad. Not sure I'm on board there. So while Mourinho’s stylistic ruthlessness is maligned, Ferguson’s managerial version of it flies under the radar.
While his Premier League reputation has long since become solid gold (and got him bloody knighted), watching Manchester United's flops in two of the last three Champion's League finals against Barcelona has left me with the feeling that his style is somehow unfit for competition against the best, at their best, that with Ferguson there is some sort of incongruousness between his sometimes brutal talent management style and winning at the absolute highest level.
Fergie's Latest Two Cracks at Barca
As a fan of the game, I was immediately disheartened, knowing that one side was now seriously hamstrung, and I--wishing along with the world's largest captive audience--had hoped for a prodigious clash.
As most of us are aware, the UCL is no underdog league. Currently, given the schedules these teams play, normal teams are systematically weeded out through the rounds by not being disgustingly rich enough to have the means to field two studs at almost every position. So the whole point, in my opinion, of a UCL final is that sometimes you get to see the absolute juggernauts square up. After the game, I remember cursing Ferguson for wasting this moment.
When Manchester finished off Shalke (admittedly one of the deeper runs ever by an underdog), and Barcelona fought, passed and dived by Mourinho’s revamped Madrid, I again had the feeling that, aside from that disgraced Madrid side, these were certainly the best two teams in football, and that this was another affirmation of why the Champions League can be the most compelling of sporting spectacles our species has organized.
This time, however, my excitement was tempered: 'What was old Fergie going to do about Nani, and Berbatov?'
Now, while both of these players still (and may always) have clear flaws, they played a key role in Man U's success this season. Nani's 14 assists and Berbatov's 20 goals were both tops in the Premier League this season. But (perhaps irrelevant) stats aside, Nani was the creative force behind many of Man. U.'s strongest shows of football this season, and although Hernandez's recent vein of form had left Berbatov seemingly expendable, Barcelona represented a different sort of challenge, one where a recent vein of form doesn’t necessarily hold up.
It again came down to: was the identity of Man. U. its best players, or Fergie’s latest 'strongest' line-up, inspired, in part, by whose ego was ripe for a smashing on this enormous stage? For different, tactical reasons, I would be fine against having either Nani or Berbatov on the bench against 999 teams out of 1,000.
'Not against Barcelona.
As the starting line-up was displayed I cursed Fergie for the second time in three years, this time before the game even started.
The Nani 'Cycle', By Way of Example
Great teams go in cycles and the cycle they (Barcelona) are in at the moment is the best in Europe, there's no question of that. How long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at another point...they certainly have the philosophy. Can you find players like Xavi and Iniesta and Messi all the time? Probably not. But they are enjoying the moment that they have just now. (soccernet)
Now, barring the strongest mental resilience on Nani’s part, the downturn of his part in Man. U.'s latest ‘cycle’ is all but inevitable. The funny part was that it almost seemed that Messi--although he obviously had a vested interest in the same thing--was an actor in Fergie’s grand scheme: his mastery over his players. Berbatov, by the way, was not even privileged to be selected as a benchwarmer.
Granted, groups of players rise and fall, often in cycles, by themselves or with help, and Ferguson has mastered the aspect of getting a few egos to coexist for two or three consecutive seasons. He knows--better than anyone else right now--when to hold and when to release a player from the fold. Yet I wonder if Ferguson will ever allow one of his own teams to break cycle slightly and peak properly when the enormous challenge of a particular game depends on him doing so.
Perhaps he could try this at least once, against the game's best, on the world's grandest stage for club football, and we the largest captive audience would finally be granted our epitome: a spectacle of substance to match the herald and the hype.