If Manchester United are not dramatically usurped by
Schalke in hugely improbable fashion this evening then the final Sir Alex
Ferguson always dreaded will be in store for his side.
For Fergie, the prospect of facing the club he
despises and resents even more than Liverpool and Manchester City - Real
Madrid - would have been a delicious one.
A chance to clatter Cristiano Ronaldo; a chance to put
the club's hierarchy in their place; a chance to undermine Jose Mourinho's
constant coveting of the Old Trafford hotseat.
But it will be Barcelona who await the winner of
the second semi-final in the Wembley showpiece on May 28, and the test posed by
Pep Guardiola's trailblazers could hardly be sterner.
The Catalans, who have won the tournament on three
previous occasions - 1992, 2006 and 2009 - will learn of their Wembley
opponents when United, who have a 2-0 lead from the first
leg, surely close out a comfortable aggregate win this evening.
Ferguson respects, admires and lauds Barcelona to
levels which border on defeatism at times, and United fans will have the
comprehensive 2-0 defeat in the 2009 Champions League final still fresh in their
United were thoroughly outclassed by the Catalan side
in that final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and the only major thing which
has changed since then is the departure of the instrumental Ronaldo from their ranks.
Do the Premier League leaders have a chance of
overcoming Barca should they shrug off Schalke at Old Trafford? The Scot is probably doubtful of that.
'Never write off the Germans' will be the inevitable and frankly nauseating tagline to
this evening's second leg. But seriously, do write them off.
Schalke may be absurdly unpredictable and
inconsistent, but the simple fact is that there is not sufficient quality among
coach Ralf Rangnick's ranks to overturn a two-goal deficit away from home.
No amount of historical and national stereotyping can seriously challenge that.
Barcelona coach Guardiola has clearly already decided who his side will face at Wembley, declaring that "It will be a different game to the final in 2009 - they (United) are a different team with different strikers.
"They are a great team and he (Ferguson) is one of the best in the game - he has shown he can repeat and recreate, and win and win and win in finals."
Ferguson looks set to field a cluster of reserves tonight,
such is his side's dominance of the tie, with a now crucial Premier League encounter
with Chelsea imminent.
will be rested and Fergie has already hinted that strikers Dimitar
Berbatov and the much-derided Michael Owen will be involved against the German side.
It would be foolhardy of anyone to even pretend that
the United boss will have at least one eye already firmly fixed on Sunday's
monstrous clash with Carlo Ancelotti's resurgent Blues.
With Barcelona lying in wait, United must put all
their eggs in the Premier League basket, simply viewing the Wembley final as
merely an unlikely bonus.
governing body UEFA, not to mention the hierarchies at both Barca and Real,
will have been mightily relieved that Tuesday's match largely passed by without the theatrics,
spite and bad blood which enveloped events at the Santiago Bernabeu last week.
As if that game wasn't
bad enough, the aftermath of Barca's 2-0 win
in the first leg was marred by both teams
complaining about the other's conduct to UEFA, Real coach Mourinho
stirring things up and the Madrid club
accusing Barca's Sergio Busquets of racism, so it was a blessed
relief to get back to football.
With a torrential downpour
in Barcelona adding to the sense of foreboding at the Camp Nou, referee Frank
de Bleeckere led the two teams out perhaps expecting the worst - but he would
have been as relieved as anyone that, for the first time this season, a Clasico
finished with all 22 players on the field (despite Ricardo Carvalho's best efforts).
It threatened to get
tetchy towards the end as Real's increasingly desperate players found
themselves only able to break Barca's momentum by committing fouls - 27 in all
- but De Bleeckere exerted his authority at the right moments to keep the
players under control.
reaching a third Champions League final in six seasons, and United
will be hoping that they can secure their place in a third showpiece in four
campaigns this evening.
OF THE DAY: "At Italia 90, nothing prepared me
for stepping out at that World Cup and the nerves. Arsene (Wenger) I've got the
utmost respect for, but it's my job to make sure that our young players don't
suffer from those nerves that probably inhibited me." Stuart Pearce
explains, in the style of a chapter of his autobiography, why Jack Wilshere
must go to the European U21 Championship in Denmark. Now he won't miss a
penalty for the senior side in Poland and Ukraine next year.
VIEW: It is not just England who have been
left to bemoan rancid performances at recent major championships, and it has
come to something when Brazil are the ones ruing their current world status. Brazil's
2014 World Cup coach Mano Menezes, whose assessment is startling: "Brazil
used to be the prominent team and we have lost that role in world football.
That's Spain today, not us."
We also have expert blogs from Jim White and
from our Spanish football specialist Andy Mitten, while another top manager
will be revealing all (so to speak) in the latest edition of our '60 seconds'