Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson is fantastic – perhaps great beyond words. However, three big mistakes in his last three seasons in charge removed some shine from his glittering 27-year career at Old Trafford.
In part one of this Manchester United opinion article, I throw light on Fergie’s incapacity, despite his immense experience, to humble the mighty Barcelona of Spain during the era of coach Pep Guardiola – a former La Liga and Serie A player which he once tried to sign.
Losing twice to Pep Guardiola
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me - a popular saying that underlines the importance of getting back up by learning from mistakes.
One would expect a legendary manager like Sir Alex Ferguson to proudly declare such a warning and successfully fulfil every word in it. However, this is definitely not what happened in 2011. Manchester United experienced an eventful Champions League campaign and reached their third final in four seasons.
In fact, the Red Devils were greatly motivated by their embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final staged in Rome. Ferguson wanted revenge against Pep Guardiola’s side and he had a golden opportunity to do so. As if it were scripted, Manchester United and Barcelona met in the Champions League final again. This time, the showdown was not in Italy but in England, at Wembley, to be precise.
"Advantage Fergie!" pundits screamed, taking into account the ‘home’ factor favouring Manchester United. It was widely believed that if something could distract the high-flying Catalans, it would be the Old Scot’s decades of experience in playing mind games. "I know my players will be ready," Fergie said before kick-off.
The 90-minute final took place and at the end of proceedings, it was England’s visitors Barcelona who partied like there was no tomorrow. Sir Alex Ferguson, with all his superiority over Pep Guardiola in terms of age and what have you, could not master a perfect plan to shut down the opposition.
Manchester United, just like they did in the 2009 Champions League final, suffered a 2-0 margin defeat. They had been completely owned by the mesmerising trio of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, while David Villa and Pedro managed to grab a goal each.
Two years before, post-match analysis pointed out several tactical mistakes made by Sir Alex Ferguson at the Stadio Olimpico. The list of criticism included the manager’s decision to play Cristiano Ronaldo as a striker and use Wayne Rooney on the wings. A huge amount of ink was poured in the English media as football analysts tried to comprehend where Manchester United went wrong.
In 2011, when the Red Devils booked a repeat of the 2009 final, United supporters were hopeful of witnessing pay-back. They wanted to re-live the glory of the 1999 and 2008 European triumphs. However, it was not to be. Former Barcelona B coach Pep Guardiola, in his third season as senior team manager, sent Ferguson and his troops back to the drawing board.
Questions started to pour in: is Pep Guardiola the best manager in the world? Is Barcelona the best team of all time?
And while the world was busy praising the mighty Catalans, Ferguson and his Manchester United army sobbed in silence. "No one has ever given us a hiding like that," the Old Scot admitted in the aftermath of the defeat.
Little did the public know at the time that the 2011 Champions League final fiasco at Wembley would represent Fergie’s last moment at this stage of Europe’s biggest club competition.
The following season, the Red Devils were stunned by FC Basel in the group stages and had to settle for Europa League football – a competition which they did not value and played second fiddle to the Champions League. This season, they lost to semi-finalists Real Madrid in the Round of 16.
Looking back at Manchester United's European ride in the last four years, one question subsequently comes to my mind: Is it normal for a manager as illustrious as Ferguson to come close to Champions League glory on two separate occasions against the same team and lose both battles?
Without taking anything away from the Barcelona team under the Guardiola era, it has to be said that Sir Alex Ferguson allowed himself to be fooled – not once, but twice - and by the same enemy too.
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