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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Unbeatable Rio out to blunt Barca

At its most simplistic, the Champions League final can be billed as attack versus defence, the world's most feared forward against Europe's most frugal back four; incessant possession against obdurate opposition.

If Manchester United tend to react to Barcelona's billing as overwhelming favourites with reminders that that there shouldn't be a Catalan monopoly on good football at Wembley, it is nevertheless impossible to ignore the importance of Sir Alex Ferguson's rearguard.

Barcelona can appear the immortals, but Manchester United verge on the invincibles when Rio Ferdinand is paired with Nemanja Vidic. The 32-year-old has only suffered two defeats in his club's colours all season - albeit both in North London in the last few weeks - and, if a third is averted, the underdogs will be celebrating on Saturday.

"Every season I've been here we've never been favourites to win the league in most people's eyes, so it doesn't bother me," Ferdinand said. "We know what we are capable of and they know what we're capable of."

A siege mentality may be developing at Old Trafford but, while United are yet to concede on their travels in the Champions League, a backs-against-the-wall effort isn't planned. Attack, Ferdinand says, is as important as defence.

"You've got to have a good balance in your team and that's what we've done better than anyone else in the Premier League this year," he added. "I think it's the key in all games. We need to take this into the game on Saturday, but against a team like Barcelona they have got so many attacking threats that you have to make sure everything is clicking in the right order."

Amongst the myriad attacking weapons at Pep Guardiola's disposal, however, one stands out: Lionel Messi. If the Argentine's mesmeric solo effort in the Bernabeu, the second of his two semi-final goals against Real Madrid, may be the apotheosis of his brand of dribbling, the exception came in Rome two years ago. The 2009 Champions League was notable, among other things, for a headed goal from Messi. Factor in the World Player of the Year's diminutive stature and the fact that United have only conceded once to a header this season, when both Ferdinand and Vidic have been on the pitch, and a strike with rarity value remains a painful memory.

"It was a great cross and a great header, but looking back you don't want to watch those goals or any goals going in against your team," Ferdinand said. Messi's status as a 'false nine', a centre forward who is afforded a freer role to drop deeper, could leave the United centre-halves without an immediate opponent for large swathes of the game.

"You have to be adaptable and in this game we will have to do things we don't normally do," Ferdinand accepted. "We play against one or two strikers, traditionally, but this time we might have no-one around us for long periods yet they will be still as dangerous."

Preparation, therefore, is key and United have embraced technology in their bid to halt the Spanish champions. "It's about scenarios," Ferdinand explained. "For every game we do that. We've been studying Barcelona just this week, collectively, but no more than we do with any other team. Individually we all get stuff put onto our iPads about certain players, week in, week out. It's more fine tuned stuff in terms of what you get to see."

More old-fashioned methods will be required as well, especially in a defence that is likely to contain one ingénue on the biggest stage. Should either of the 20-year-olds, Rafael and Fabio da Silva, line up at right-back, the often vocal Ferdinand will have to communicate more than usual.

"I'll talk to them all the way through the game," he said. "They need someone like me to help guide them sometimes and that's what you're there for. You need to lend experience; you don't keep that experience all to yourself."

Indeed, nerves will not be a factor in his third Champions League final in four years. "I don't let the emotional side of things get in the way of enjoying it," he added. "You enjoy it as well after, when you can sit back and take it all in."

The build-up is less pleasurable. For a defender who has always relied upon his reading of the game as much as his physical prowess, a week of ever-increasing hype and pointless displays of braggadocio between two motor-mouthed pugilists holds little appeal.

"We just want to get it all out of the way," Ferdinand said. "I can imagine what it's like for a boxer. They've got to do all this by themselves with no-one to share the load with."

Instead, he would rather downplay the occasion, claiming: "We just do what we do normally. My routine doesn't change just because it's the Champions League final."

To judge by the results, his 'routine' entails celebrating when the 90 minutes are up. Messi may be incomparable but, with two exceptions this season, United can derive consolation from the fact that Ferdinand has been unbeatable.

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