Scholes rolls back the years
Manchester United 1-0 BarcelonaBarcelona has helped define Paul Scholes' career. But not, until Tuesday night, in the right way. They may be more than a club, but he has less than happy memories of the city. Banned for one Champions League final, he belatedly earned himself a second nine years on. That is Scholes, unhurried to the last in everything other than his tackling.
And it was fitting that he was the man to take Manchester United to Moscow. Though he didn't play there on the most famous night in the club's history, with Ryan Giggs demoted to the bench and Gary Neville unable to make the match-day 18, he nonetheless represented the last survivor of the Barcelona generation. He was a spectator in a suit at the Nou Camp nine years ago, and a source of excellence in the midfield there six days ago.
Now he has eliminated them with a wondrous winner. Sir Alex Ferguson had previously said he would be sentimental in selecting Scholes in the event of a May date in Moscow. He need only be practical in picking him, given the veteran's impact on the two legs against the Catalan club. There are times when Scholes can appear the connoisseurs' choice, overlooked by the masses but valued by his manager. He was singled out for praise by Ferguson after the first leg, and he decided the second.
Unwilling to risk a second suspension for the biggest club game of them all, Ferguson removed his goalscorer with a quarter of an hour remaining. Scholes duly trotted off in suitably undemonstrative fashion, even while being granted a standing ovation. It was all too typical, though, of a player who can wilfully eschew the flashy, though he is eminently capable of it. After the first-leg passing exhibition of Xavi and co, there is a sense that, despite Rio Ferdinand's elegant defending and Cristiano Ronaldo's showmanship, he may be the United player best suited to Barcelona's brand of football.
But there were times this season when the chant that Scholes scores goals has appeared anachronistic. Not any longer, a statistic of one all season suggested. His second, however, was one to savour. After Gianluca Zambrotta won the ball from Ronaldo and then swiftly returned possession to the on-rushing Scholes.
His shot was one of ferocity and technique, arcing past Victor Valdes from 25 yards and into the top corner. If the definition of a great goal requires a sense of occasion as well as perfect execution, this met both criteria. It was, too, an instant reminder of why Ferguson used to refer to him as the best finisher at Old Trafford.
'It was a fantastic goal,' said the United manager. 'I don't think we can expect Paul Scholes to score 10-15 goals like he when he was younger, but that made up for it. He's one of the great players. He's come through the ranks and knows the club.'
His trust in a 33-year-old with diminishing stamina was apparent. Scholes and Michael Carrick were left outnumbered in midfield as United, especially in the first half, almost played 4-2-4. Ferguson gambled with his selection on Saturday at Chelsea. This, too, was risky. But it was an indication of the urgency and it enabled them to impose their game on the 2006 champions. Barcelona's technique was the defining theme of the first leg. This time it was Manchester United's pace. Their previous meeting was played on Barcelona's terms, this on United's.
Their attacking approach was reflected in their chances. Scholes' goal was an exception as each of the others involved combinations of the four forwards. The best was spurned by Nani, heading Ji-Sung Park's inviting cross wide.
In the final half-hour, however, the key personnel were found at the other end. Carrick, in particular, produced a series of inspired interceptions. Behind him, the injured Nemanja Vidic was not missed, which is testament to the performances of Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown.
After spending the majority of the first half on the right touchline, there were spells when Lionel Messi ran the game thereafter, an enviable elusiveness enabling him to avoid opponents almost at will. Yet his skill was not reflected in Barcelona's tally of attempts. At times they display an Arsenalesque reluctance to shoot when the alternative is another pass. For the second time in a week, they rendered Edwin van der Sar a spectator for too much of the match. It amounted to an underwhelming way to announce what is in all probability the end of an era the break-up of what was, for two years, a great team.
If some have their way, the most prominent departure will be that of the manager. Frank Rijkaard was asked if the best solution for all concerned was for him to go. He replied: 'That thought hasn't entered my head. I've no intention of leaving. The club and the team need help and support. It would be a different thing if the players were saying that it's time to go, but that's not the case.'
No such questions will be put to Ferguson. 'We needed a fantastic performance and we got one,' he added. 'We were playing a football club with a fantastic philosophy and a great team. It's not easy to beat that Barcelona team because they play fantastic football.'
So, too, does Paul Scholes.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Wes Brown
He and Ferdinand were defiance personified at the heart of the United defence, matching each other for astute reading of the game, well-timed tackles and general dependability. Ferdinand has frequently been reliable, but this appeared a landmark performance from Brown.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They coped admirably without Vidic and Wayne Rooney. The sole specialist striker available, Carlos Tevez, has gained a reputation for scoring vital goals and, while he didn't add to that tally, his was the performance of a big-game player, especially in the first half. Scholes and Carrick executed their disciplined roles admirably, but the two central defenders were arguably their outstanding performers.
BARCELONA VERDICT: They have assembled arguably the most gifted group of players in the world, but for all the expert passing of Xavi, Barca contrived to be less than the sum of their parts. The absent Ronaldinho is unlikely to be the only departure. Thierry Henry was again confined to the bench and Barcelona's other star striker also endured a frustrating night. Perhaps Rijkaard is overly wedded to the Dutch formation of 4-3-3, perhaps he had other reasons, but removing Samuel Eto'o when they needed a goal appeared strange.
REVOLUTION, COMRADE? Manchester United's choice of 'the Red Flag' on the tannoy beforehand was unusual. They may play in red, but the song's communist connotations jar with the club's commercialisation. Still, Rio Ferdinand will no doubt donate his earnings from his new contract to his less fortunate comrades among the proletariat.
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