Even before the return game in Old Trafford last week, the United manager admitted he was mesmerized and not too sure about his “young back line” preventing Real from scoring goals. The Scottish diehard United boss, however, believed his Red Devils would themselves score goals.
Ferguson was proud of his team coming from behind to win, 4-3, last week, but Man. U. support must face it, they were undisputedly outclassed by the best team in Europe and the world in falling on aggregate, 6-5. The overall 180 minutes turned out to be a feast of 11 goals for the fans, but for Ferguson it was Champions’ League failure. Sir Alex is unable to get it tactically right when it comes to the final crunch games in the CL. Seven quarterfinals in a row are impressive, but Old Trafford are missing something to go all the way.
It’s fantastic that the club philosophy of United is totally committed to attacking and attractive football. There is a big emphasis on dominating one-on-one situations, but against Real they were absolutely second best in individual battles. United’s defending needed far more attention on the whole and in particular simply marking Zinedine Zidane. Easier said than done, of course, to close down the best player in the world. Therefore, all the more reason to do it, or at least include marking Zidane in the game plan. Furthermore, in the second leg the United back line was unable to cope with the sheer speed, strength and sharpness of hat-trick hero Ronaldo, the Brazilian World Cup legend.
In the return leg, Ronaldo pounced on an early goal in the 12th minute to put the game way beyond United. However, in typical style, Manchester did not drop their heads, but got stuck in and their efforts were rewarded with a Ruud van Nistelrooy equalizer. It could be argued that Manchester deserved another goal before the half, while Real were relieved to hear the halftime whistle. The 15-minute break did nothing for Ferguson and his players. They obviously did not learn their Ronaldo lesson, and out the Brazilian came to score within five minutes of the second half, catching United defensively flat. Incredibly United pulled back to 2-all, and yet again Ronaldo unleashed a stunning effort, making it 3-2 for Real.
It looked like the curtains were coming down at the Theater of Dreams when the Real coach, Vincente del Bosque, decided to take Ronaldo off. Indeed, the curtains may have come down but the lights were not out. United equalized, then made it 4-3, and suddenly there was time on the clock for an outrageous comeback, one even better than the Bayern Munich final of 1999. At 4-3, the reinstated David Beckham got a free right on the edge of the Madrid box and his strike wasn’t far off for his hat trick. Fergie knew this was a golden chance missed, and his expletive said it all as the ball flew past the target. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also had a chance in the dying minutes. However, it was too much to ask of the United players to come back, needing two goals in the last 10 minutes.
At the same time, toward the end of the game Real had become exhausted again, like they did at the end of the first half. Similar tiring traits were also apparent in the first leg. Perhaps overlooking just how weary Real becomes was not given enough thought in United’s game plan. Those final periods of time in each half are Real’s weakest link, and that was the cae again against Manchester United.
So it must be questioned, did Fergie get the tactics right, considering Real’s lack of staying power? Could he have done a better job defensively, thus having less to do near the end of the game?
It almost seemed that United was playing casually, or that they were made to seem casual. Either way, they lacked the intensity needed to close down Zidane and Luis Figo. In hindsight, it’s clear that United was the fitter team, having played in the tough EPL week in and week out. And it was evident that they could finish the game stronger.
It was extremely clear that John O’Shea would take the game down the wing as Ryan Giggs cut across into the middle. O’Shea was outstanding, but did he have to go down the wing so early on? Yes, he was excellent, but surely the back four should have stayed at home and compact, for at least the first 20 minutes. On the opposite flank, Wes Brown was trying to do damage down the flank, but his play was ineffective. It was predictable. What allowed these fullbacks to get forward was the ailing Roy Keane sitting in the middle, where he played too many square balls. Might as well have played Keano in central defense. After all, how many threatening runs did he make?
There were other noticeable weaknesses in the United game. Giggs lost the ball in most of Manchester’s early attacks. The Reds started brightly and were breaking up Madrid’s play through the middle. Man. U. also strung some good passes together but it was blatant that the attack was collapsing with Giggs. That happens with Giggsy’s game. But it frustrated the United attacks and, worse still, it gave Real possession, and advantageous possession at that.
There are also question marks over the formation United played, which was a 4-5-1 with Solskjaer and Giggs given the license to cut in toward goal. The shape would then shift into a traditional 4-3-3. This is way too much transition in shape and way too much emphasis on attack when playing against a side like Real — and 3-1 down. Keeping in mind that Real players such as Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and Steve McManaman get tired, shutting them down was really the only way to go. Otherwise, as we know now, Real’s attack was all over the open game that was to be the approach of United.
Eventually, for United, Beckham was brought back, perhaps too late, but Quinton Fortune and Phil Neville, although they played well, were out of their league. Both players have not played enough this season. Beckham, of course, is the only player that entered from the bench who could turn such a game, and he did.
Alex Ferguson has made Manchester United a permanent fixture when it comes to Champion League. But when it comes to the final, he comes up short. It’s going to happen when you have doubts about your back line. And it doesn’t help when your goalkeeper I smore offense than defense. United’s attacking football is wonderful to watch, but to win the CL Fergie has to get it defensively right by also stopping other teams, especially when it comes to Real and Zinedine Zidane.