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UEFA Champions' League

Some Sober Reflections

It’s hard to step back and look at the whole final without being tainted by the result. The temptation is to exult the good bits and ignore the bad bits, on the basis that it was all part of a masterplan. It’s also hard to give any new perspective, given the pages and pages of journalism on the subject. But I’m going to try – I’m going to give you two bits of hype that you should believe, and also four hard truths that we need to learn if we are to improve on what seems like perfection.

1. Believe the hype – 4-4-2

There weren’t many pundits who genuinely thought that we’d go in with a 4-4-2. “All about the midfield battle”, they pontificated, talking fluent cliche; “Chelsea are very physical and United will need numbers to combat that”. Having suffered through the Barca games and the loss at the Bridge, plenty of us also expected a 4-3-3 cum 4-5-1 to take the field.

There can be no doubt that we played an orthodox 4-4-2 for the whole first half, and that it worked superbly. Not least because it was a total tactical wrong ‘un, which it took Grant until half time to figure out. Carrick and Scholes were 15 yards deeper than Lampard and Ballack expected, so they had an extra touch or two to dictate the play. Our strongest player homed in on their most vulnerable. Makalele had no floating players to track, and so was comparatively ineffective. Cashley’s incursions were limited by Hargreaves, helping Brown to tuck and and deal with the central threat.

But the extra stroke of genius, what turned it from an interesting ploy into a potentially match-winning gambit, was the use of Hargreaves. When the teams were announced, literally everybody took it as proof that we were playing 4-3-3. Hargo’s been better going forward recently, but nobody has him down as a right winger. He was to be the screen – after all, that’s what he was bought for. So Chelsea would have focussed their last minute team talks on re-inforcing their strategy against 4-3-3, and a slight surprise was turned into a brutal curveball. It took them fully 45 minutes to recover; by that time, we should have had the match wrapped up.

2. Hard truth – Rooney and Tevez aren’t ruthless enough

This doesn’t matter in many matches, but it does in the really huge games. You don’t get many chances, and you have to be able to take a very high percentage of them against the very best teams to stand a chance. Ronaldo, nominally a winger, had one chance and put it away – that’s been the story of his season, what has turned 25 into 42.

I’m afraid Rooney and, in particular, Tevez aren’t doing that. They have each scored a decent number of goals, but not as many as they should have done in a team of this creative potential. In the final, Rooney didn’t have a single shot on goal – extraordinary for your centre-forward, however selfless. Tevez did – he should have scored twice in the first half, and in the second half he wasted a couple of decent positions by trying to beat the best most orange keeper in the world at his near post.

We need that Huntelaar type of figure – the predator who converts the great moves – to maximise our chances of retaining the European Cup.

3. Hard truth – Edwin van der Saar

Just as for Jerzy Dudek, the last penalty hero in a CL final, so it must be for EVDS. He has been struggling of late, with dodgy kicks and the odd flap at a high ball. It was extraordinary to see Fergie instruct his team at Stamford Bridge not to pass back to EVDS, and there were a couple of examples of that in the final where Vida tamely put balls out for throw-ins rather than trying to re-cycle the ball through his keeper. Nor is this fading towards the end of the season a first – it was the same last time round.

I don’t blame him for the slip for the first goal, since he was going for the first deflection and had to change again for the second. But when he slipped in the second half as Essien approached, that could have cost us the game – if Essien’s shot had been on target at all, it would have gone in.

We have a ready-made replacement in Ben Foster, and this is the ideal time to blood him. He has one of the most experienced keepers in the world on the training pitch, and the most secure back four in recent history in front of him.

4. Believe the hype – Nemanja Vidic

People have talked about the contribution of our stingy defence, but Vida was truly massive in this game. I don’t think there’s anyone better (and I’m including England’s Bottling John Terry, or England’s Bawling John Terry*, as you prefer) at dealing with a physical centre-forward. He had Drogba in his pocket for almost the whole night, so that Drogba’s only contributions came when he dropped out into midfield territory (the shot which hit the post) or out wide onto Evra in the air.

Bear in mind that Rio struggled through half of the game with mystery cramp, and you see the true achievement in containing Chelsea’s attacking threat. It’s no accident that Drogba targeted Vida for that girlie-slap – he was taking out his frustrations on the man who had shut him out of the final.

* For those not familiar with the Fiver, Terry is sarcastically nicknamed England’s Brave John Terry (EBJT) for his tedious self-portrayal as the indestructible, tough but ultimately good bloke.

5. Hard truth – substitutions

It’s been a long time since we’ve had such a strong bench, and Fergie needs to remember how to use it. One of the things that Mourinho was best at for Chelsea was recognising before anyone else did that things weren’t working, and acting decisively to change it.

It is only recently that we have had a full bench of geniune first team players to choose from. We were in serious danger of being over-run in the second half, when the 4-4-2 gambit had been recognised and dealt with. If Fergie had really been on top of his game, Scholes would have come off after 60 minutes and been replaced by Anderson, whose energy and combative spirit would have been very welcome as Chelsea began to move through the gears. At the same time, we should have reverted to the more logical 4-3-3, and freed Ronaldo from the responsibility of tracking the marauding Essien. The sentimental use of Ryan Giggs could have been saved for later.

If you want an example of the benefits of decisive subsitutions, look at the Arsenal game where Tevez and Anderson replaced Park and Scholes after 55 mins, and changed the game – we came from behind to win 2-1. More of this, please, Fergie, and less dithering.

6. Hard truth – Ronaldo as penalty-taker

That penalty miss must mark the end of Ronaldo’s stint as United’s first choice penalty taker. Whilst he has scored some high-pressure penalties (again, at Arsenal, for example), he missed three last season. Three is way too many – one is about the acceptable limit.

And think which penalties they were. First, to put the away game at West Ham out of sight – we went on to lose, and those three points would have been invaluable at end of the season. Second, in the first few minutes of the epic Barca tie – the whole tone of the tie would have been different if we had effectively started with a lead. Last, but not least, the one in the final.

Each could have cost us dear, none did. Let’s not push our luck, and give someone else the honour.

Right, that’s it. I’m going back to glorious celebrations, random chanting and myopic idolisation now. If you can step back from the hype, though, let’s hear your thoughts in the comment.