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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Scholes rolls back the years

Richard Jolly

Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona
Barcelona 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.

Nani of Manchester United clashes with Lionel Messi of Barcelona

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.

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.

Fergie: Scholes first name on Moscow team sheet

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed match-winner Paul Scholes would be on duty in the Champions League final after his memorable goal saw off Barcelona at Old Trafford.

Scholes unleashed a fierce, drilled shot after 14 minutes to hand the Red Devils a 1-0 win against the Primera Liga giants in the semi-final second leg.

Having already said he would hand the former England midfielder a starting berth if they reached the final after suspension ruled him out of the club's 1999 triumph, his second goal of the season sealed the deal.

Asked if he would make the first XI in Moscow, Ferguson told ITV1: 'Absolutely. He's one of the great players to come through the ranks here.

'But I'm so pleased for everyone.

'It's a great feeling, marvellous for this club. This club deserves to be in the final. It's fantastic.'

The Scot was also keen to thank the Old Trafford supporters, adding: 'They (Barca) chased the goal and they had to gamble but the fans got us over the line.'

United captain Rio Ferdinand also paid to tribute to Scholes and the crowd.

'You can't put this into words. The fans played their part and backed us the whole way and we dug deep.

'Then there was a moment of quality from a fantastic player. Paul Scholes...what a goal. A great time to get one.'

Looking forward to what is now certain to be an all-English final, Ferdinand insisted he did not mind whether Chelsea or Liverpool awaited them in Russia.

'We stayed together tonight and now we're waiting for whoever comes,' he added.

Team-mate Michael Carrick, taking up the theme, added: 'I don't care which one it is. Once we're there if we play well we're confident we can win.'

Rio: We had to dig deep

Rio Ferdinand praised United for "digging deep" to get past Barcelona and reach the Champions League final on Tuesday night.

A wonderful Paul Scholes goal gave United the lead, but some valiant defending was needed to stave off Barcelona's challenge.

"We had to dig deep in the end, but we feel we did enough to get there," Rio admitted after the game.

"We had to show discipline, quality in the goal from Paul Scholes - and what a goal! - and then resilience. We stuck together and we're there now."

Ferdinand and Wes Brown were rocks at the centre of a resilient defence.

United will play either Liverpool or Chelsea in the final, but Rio insists he doesn't care who the Reds' opponents are.

"I don't care who we face in the final," he added. "We're there and that's all that matters."

Manchester United Vs. Barcelona Result Report

Before the game the message was to believe. Now you can. United are going to Moscow.

And what sweet irony it is that Paul Scholes, the man who along with Roy Keane missed the Champions League final in 1999, scored the goal to take United there.

United were dealt a real blow when Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney were ruled out before kick-off. Vidic hadn’t recovered after losing a tooth in a challenge with Didier Drogba against Chelsea on Saturday, while Rooney was kept out with a persistent hip problem. Fortunately, Wes Brown had slotted in seamlessly in the Nou Camp last week when Vidic was ill. And Rooney’s replacement, Carlos Tevez, has scored important goals in big games this season – notably Chelsea, Liverpool, Lyon and, recently, Blackburn.

Barcelona, meanwhile, are considered a club in crisis in Catalonia. But Frank Rijkaard was able to rest several key players in their weekend defeat to Deportivo la Coruna, so they arrived at Old Trafford fresh and with the Champions League representing their only chance of silverware this season.

Before kick-off, United’s fans held up cards in the Stretford End and the old schoreboard end. Behind one goal, a picture of the European Cup and the years 68 and 99, at the other end the simple message: Believe. After press claims that Sir Alex’s side had cracked under pressure, it was exactly what United had to do.

Old Trafford buzzed with anticipation and the atmosphere was as electric as it has been for years. But hearts were in mouths when, after barely a minute, Lionel Messi went tumbling in the box. Paul Scholes committed the foul, but referee Herbert Fandel judged the offence to have taken place outside the box.

Sometimes semi-finals are an occasion that call for supporters to be on their game as much as the players, and the Red army weren’t about to let anyone down. The fans cheered each intricate move, every tackle won, even throw-ins. It was no surprise that the first 10 minutes were fraught and frenetic. As the dust settled, Barcelona did as the European away manual dictates: they kept the ball, attempting to quieten the support and frustrate United’s players.

The Reds almost expected it, sticking to the game plan and picking Barcelona off when they did venture forward. And at the first opportunity Cristiano Ronaldo had to open up and run at Barcelona, the approach paid off. His run was halted on the edge of the area, but the ball fell to Paul Scholes and he hit a humdinger into the top corner. He may no longer give many reasons to legitimately air the song ‘Paul Scholes, he scores goals’, but if he has become more selective, he’s not lost his sense for the big occasion. Old Trafford erupted. The dream start.

Barcelona, of course, still represented a danger – Messi’s darting runs and the presence of Samuel Eto’o made sure of that. The point was highlighted when Messi had Edwin van der Sar at full stretch to stop a curling effort five minutes after United took the lead.

United, with Ronaldo ever the outlet, were hardly sitting on the lead. The Portuguese winger’s pull-back found Ji-sung Park on 25 minutes, whose side-footed shot was desperately close to doubling the lead. Deco twice went close from long range efforts, while Nani headed just wide from Park’s pinpoint cross. As the play ebbed and flowed, this tie became the product of two clubs built only to attack.

The Reds had to be careful that the lead at half time did not lull United into a false sense of security, knowing that a Barcelona equaliser would be enough to send them through. United attacked without reservation, and on 55 minutes Tevez went close to making it 2-0. A neat one-two with Ronaldo on the edge of the box and he was aware, with three defenders in pursuit, but his shot from 12 yards was saved well by Victor Valdes.

Former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry was introduced on the hour as Barcelona looked to penetrate, and seconds later Deco again went close with a 30-yard free-kick that deflected off the wall. The tension at the precariousness of United’s lead may have added to the drama for any neutral, but for Reds fans it was hell. But credit to the supporters, the noise rarely inside the stadium rarely dropped.

Sensing the need to keep the ball – Barcelona held the vast majority of the possession – Sir Alex swapped Nani and Scholes for Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher.

Entering the final ten minutes, it had become a game of surprisingly few chances, although Barcelona were virtually camped in United’s half and continued to relentlessly probe and press. The Reds’ performance was epitomised by Tevez. His tireless display took on the role of closing down defenders, tracking back and tackling anything that moved in a Barcelona shirt.

The six minutes of injury time seemed like an age, but United defended bravely, valiantly, and finally held out.

Follow, follow, follow, United are going to Moscow.

Team Line-ups

Manchester United: Van der Sar; Hargreaves, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra (Silvestre 90); Nani (Giggs 76), Carrick, Scholes (Fletcher 76), Park; Ronaldo, Tevez.
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Anderson, O'Shea, Welbeck.

FC Barcelona: Valdes; Zambrotta, Puyol, Milito, Abidal; Messi, Xavi, Toure (Gudjohnsen), Deco, Iniesta (Henry 60); Eto'o (Bojan 71).
Subs not used: Pinto, Edmilson, Silvinho, Thuram.

Attendance: 75,061

Manchester United Vs. Barcelona Highlights Video Clip

Manchester United [1 - 0] Barcelona
14' [1 - 0] P. Scholes