In the 2008-2009 season, Barcelona played some of the greatest football of the modern era. Their innovative approach to play which drew on great philosophies of the past was especially inspiring for football purists. They lifted the Champions League trophy in 2009 – but were thwarted by a steely Manchester United across two legs in the 2008 semi-final.
A 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp a fortnight before, set up a tantalising encounter at Old Trafford for a place in the final in Moscow. United, known for their swashbuckling, direct and open, counter-attacking play, set their stall out in quite a different fashion against the Spaniards.
It was a performance worthy of champions. Not a destruction of a weak opponent, or a one sided rout which proved ultimate domination. Instead, it was a performance which recognised all the skill and talent of their opponent, and saw United set out with a strategy charged with guile and resilience in order to neutralise the threat of Barcelona.
United’s centre backs, Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown, were outstanding. They knew they were in a game and were made to work hard – but they didn’t crack under the pressure, especially in the closing minutes of the game. Patrice Evra caused problems all night long for Barcelona with his marauding runs – and was equally effective in his defensive role.
For all the creative flair of Manchester United’s players, Park Ji-Sung delivered a fine performance. Full of running, resilience, hard work, and sacrifice for the team. Over the years United have shown their ability to grind out results. This was a slightly different offering as they were able to not only counteract the brilliance of Barcelona but at the same time sting them with a decisive, match winning goal.
Barcelona, as they often do, enjoyed the vast majority of possession. But were unable to exploit their handle on the game with a goal. United were resolute across the two legs. It was almost a Mourinho-esque performance. Every positional and tactical choice made by Ferguson was designed to stop Barcelona. He didn’t set up the team to try and tear the Spaniards apart. He wanted to frustrate them, disrupt them, and bite them when they least expected it.
Many teams have beaten strong opponents by tactically preparing themselves to break the rhythm of a seemingly superior opponent. United under Ferguson were no different. He knew the magnitude of the fixture and made plans to ensure United’s passage to the final. It was also in this period Jose Mourinho started to make wider use of the tactic of disrupting opponents. He made a habit of doing it on a weekly basis whereas United only did it when the quality of the opponent dictated.
But if the success of United’s path to the final in 2008 proved anything – it was that teams who were capable of varying their style were the world’s most successful. In stopping Barcelona, Ferguson gave the world a blueprint for how to stop even the mightiest of opponents. He isn’t the first coach to do this. The great Italian coaches who philosophised about catenaccio always set out their teams to disrupt and defend – and they have four World Cups to show for it.
It was Ferguson, like Mourinho after him, who masterminded a victory over stronger opponents through forensic ploys to unsettle and exploit. The fruits of his labour in 2008 were Champions League and Premier League winner’s medals.
This game cannot be mentioned without a word on the performance of one player. A certain Paul Scholes. A player who has never won the Balloon D’or – and was often overlooked during his playing days. Yet he is lauded by other players and managers alike. Xavi said Scholes was “the best central midfield [he had] ever seen in the last 15, 20 years”. Zinedine Zidane said: “My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder. Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation”. Marcello Lippi said “Scholes would have been one of [my] first choices for putting a great team together”. The list of superlatives goes on; from Best to Pele, and Figo to Guardiola – those in the game understood the talent of Paul Scholes.
Scholes cut his teeth playing in an advanced role just off the main striker and earned a reputation for making late runs into the box to score. Later in his career, he retreated back to operate more regularly as a deep lying playmaker who would control the tempo of the game unlike any other player. On school playgrounds up and down the country when a loose ball appeared on the edge of the box children would often shout “Scholes!” as they attempted to rifle a shot in.
The decisive moment in this second leg tie came in the 14th minute when Ronaldo attempted a dribble and was halted on the edge of the box. A misplaced pass from a Barcelona defender bounced into Scholes’ feet. He controlled it and saw it bobble in front of him. More than enough to whet his appetite for striking a half-volley. And strike it he did. From 25 yards out, he arrowed his shot into the top right corner with laser like precision and promptly peeled away in wild celebrations.
We shouldn’t have been surprised he scored from that distance, and in those circumstances, because we’ve seen him do it on so many occasions before. “The boy with the red hair and the red shirt,” said Socrates, “the greatest English player of all time”.