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How Man Utd mastered Europe

Sir Alex Ferguson first got his hands on the Champions League trophy in 1999
Sir Alex Ferguson first got his hands on the Champions League trophy in 1999

Uefa Champions League final: Barcelona v Manchester United
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Rome Date: Wed, 27 May Kick-off: 1945 BST Coverage: Live on ITV1 and Sky Sports 1, BBC Radio Five Live, BBC Radio Manchester; BBC Sport website.

By Mike Henson

One match away from a successful Champions League defence, it is easy to forget that three years ago there were well-founded doubts about whether Sir Alex Ferguson would ever get his hands on the trophy for a second time, never mind a third.

After finishing bottom of a less-than-formidable group of Benfica, Villareal and Lille, United's exit from the 2005/06 competition followed failure to make the quarter-finals in the previous two years - and to make things worse, English clubs as a whole were finally thriving on the continent.

Most gallingly, arch-rivals Liverpool, having seen their lead in terms of domestic titles whittled away over the past decade or so, had captured a fifth European Cup the year before.

606: DEBATE

Arsenal were to come within 15 minutes of victory in the final at the end of the 2005/06 season, while Chelsea, on their way to successive Premier League titles under Jose Mourinho, seemed the coming force.

Further afield, United could be forgiven a nagging inferiority complex when they compared their 1968 European Cup and Champions League success in 1999 against the records of European giants Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

MAN UTD'S CL RECORD SINCE '99
98-99: WINNERS - beat B Munich
99-00: QF - lost to R Madrid
00-01: QF - lost to B Munich
01-02: SF - lost to B Leverkusen
02-03: QF - lost to R Madrid
03-04: Last 16 - lost to Porto
04-05: Last 16 - lost to AC Milan
05-06: Group stage
06-07: SF - lost to AC Milan
07-08: WINNERS - beat Chelsea
08-09: ? - final against Barcelona

As Ferguson reached 20 years in charge at Old Trafford, the trajectory of United's European campaigns suggested he might retire with his solitary 1999 triumph a sharp contrast to his domestic domination.

But even at the nadir of United's fall from European prominence, the pieces were being assembled for a return to success. A month after the 2-1 loss to Benfica at the Estadio da Luz that eliminated them from the competition, Ferguson recruited Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra.

Vidic had a brutal introduction to the Premier League. An hour into his debut against Blackburn Rovers, United had conceded four goals and to make matters worse, Vidic's new defensive partner Rio Ferdinand was sent off two minutes from time.

But their partnership flourished as Vidic's robust centre-back play established him as an heir to Jaap Stam and the perfect foil to Ferdinand's more languid style. The combination drove down the goals conceded by the side both in Europe and at home.

It took longer for Evra to settle, but the Frenchman eventually ousted Gabriel Heinze and Mikael Silvestre from the left-back slot.

He provided more attacking menace than either and proved to be a vital ally for an ageing Ryan Giggs as well as the industrious Ji-Sung Park. Alongside Barcelona's Dani Alves, Arsenal's Gael Clichy and Inter Milan's Maicon, Evra has shown that attacking full-backs are an essential tool to break down top European defences.

Goals conceded by Man Utd

Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland boss and current Uefa technical director, believes full-backs have become part of a more sophisticated strategy for breaking down well-drilled defences.

"You've got to find solutions to this defensive block and clearly the use of the wings, where once it would have been a traditional winger and only the occasional overlapping full-back, is one way of attempting that. Now far more teams are doing that because it is one major way to exploit the opposition," he told BBC Sport.

After United finished eight points adrift of Chelsea in May 2006, Ferguson bought Michael Carrick, a signing who has an ability to screen and defend as well as a metronomic passing style.

With the solid base provided by Ferdinand and Vidic and the width provided by his full-backs, Ferguson has phased out the traditional holding role of a player solely concerned with breaking up opposition attacks. Where once Klebersen, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Alan Smith sat back, now Carrick, along with Anderson and Fletcher, have a duty to roam and control possession.

"We won it in 1999 but the next year we got absolutely battered on the counter attack by the likes of Anderlecht and PSV. Obviously teams had worked us out quite easily," Ferguson said last week.

"With the kind of midfield players I have, I think three central midfielders definitely suits us in European football. You keep the ball better and have far more patience and control over the situation than we used to have," admits Ferguson.

But perhaps the boldest decision by Ferguson in rebuilding United was to sell Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid.

Van Nistelrooy's departure enabled Cristiano Ronaldo, whose relationship with the Dutchman had been strained at times, to take on greater goal-scoring responsibility and the Portuguese international has been at the heart of an evolution which has seen less reliance on central target-men and more on deeper-lying forwards.

Cristiano Ronaldo's goals record

"I think Rafa Benitez summed it up best in one of our meetings where he said that once you had four people in the box waiting in the box for a cross now you have four people arriving.

"It is that much more difficult to pick people up when they are running at you from deeper areas. The trend has definitely been far more towards that," said Roxburgh, who leads a panel of top-level coaches in assessing how teams play in the tournament.

"The traditional 4-4-2 with twin striker play is far less obvious today, it far more about having a whole variety of options and many of those will come from deeper positions."

Whatever changes he made, the faith in Ferguson among his players was unshakeable, a fact summed up by Ryan Giggs.

"The night in Benfica I was optimistic because you've got to trust the manager. He had already won so much. At that time we were evolving the team and trying to get the age of the team down and that takes time. We maybe did it quicker than we thought."



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see also
Barcelona v Man Utd
26 May 09 |  Europe
Who has won the European Cup?
26 May 09 |  Europe
Vidic ready to win at all costs
26 May 09 |  Europe
Man Utd defence is key - Lineker
26 May 09 |  Man Utd
The men who make Barca beautiful
26 May 09 |  Europe
Kahn's Champions League nightmare
26 May 09 |  Europe
Road to Rome photos
25 May 09 |  Europe
Barca's Toure ready for 'decider'
25 May 09 |  Europe
Ferguson hungry for more success
22 May 09 |  Man Utd
O'Shea eager to secure Euro glory
21 May 09 |  Man Utd
Man Utd fans given Rome warning
20 May 09 |  Manchester
Uefa confident of safe Euro final
08 May 09 |  Europe
Warning to ticketless United fans
22 May 09 |  Manchester
Henry & Iniesta doubts for final
21 May 09 |  Europe
Barca clinch Spanish league title
16 May 09 |  Europe
When Bryan Robson tamed Barca
22 Apr 08 |  Europe


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