When Robbie Blake scored that absolute bullet in the 3rd game of the season against the Red Devils, Burnley were safely placed 4th in the points table with United lurking at 15th. Fast forward to March 2010, Old Trafford is totally buzzing: United is topping the EPL table having already done the business in Carling Cup Final at the cost of Mikey Owen and now preparing to fly to Munich for the CL Quater Finals against a resurgent Bayern Munchen side, which boasts of a mental midfield with Ribery and Robben on the flanks and Schweinsteiger and Van Bommel providing service from the centre to Miroslav Klose upfront. In the often prophetic words of Fergie, in fact just a summary of it: he doesn't care even if his team plays Beckenbauer's mam-in-law. Of course, Fergie didn't say that precisely, but I just thought if he somehow reads this, it may come in handy for his pre-match Press notes.
What United must avoid are the disasters of Rome last year and San Siro in 2007, when they just didn't show up against Pep's Catalans and Carlo's Senior Citizens respectively. In fact, it would be apt to observe now that those two games have instilled a cautious discipline in them starting from this campaign. Wazza, Giggsy, Scholesy and co. are not allowing any team to stifle them anymore. In the recent past, whenever stifled though silky, short passing, United have succumbed fatally. They're struggling at 8th in the Coca-Cola Championship now, but rewind to 2006 and Boro thrashed United 4-1 in a game at Old Trafford in which Gaizka Mendieta reminded the world why he was one of the best of his generation. Chelsea battered them 3-0 the previous year and in the same campaign, Milan scored solitary winners in both legs only to go on to lose to Liverpool in arguably the greatest ever CL Final. All these defeats had the same cause: United were stifled by opposition and had no response. Imagine, if they had a counter strategy in 2007 and 2009, only 3 victories and today there would have been banners in the 'Pool vs United game saying, "We matched your 18 and we matched your 5 and now we gonna get 19 and we gonna get 6." It would've killed the Kop's morale till Eternity and definitely could have propelled Rafa's personal ambition of ensuring relegation for Liverpool ala Newcastle, so he could contest the Championship with his prized duo of N'gog and Voronin and finally win a league trophy in England.
Why it has taken at least 4 seasons for United to solve the 'stifling' problem is anyone's guess, but Keano pointed out 'a lack of response' in an outburst during a MUTV interview that was never aired. Many believe it's the reason he ended his career in Glasgow. Should we choose to remain in the CETERIS PARIBUS mode, this year's European Final should be a repeat of the last one and Fergie must acknowledge an absence of responsiveness the sole reason for that 2-0 loss. The midfield is usually the culprit in those 'stifled' scenarios, which can possibly beget the question that maybe United need genuine class in the centre. Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol and in 2007, Kaka and Pirlo played riot in the middle of the park with United. Fletch is going to be the key and Fergie must start relying more on Gibson from next season: he's got all basic ingredients that made the mould of Messrs Robson and Keane. Should the Red Devils manage to take a flight to Bernabeu in May, the midfield has to step up to ensure they don't put extra pressure on Rio and Vidic. In a one-off game and one as important as the CL Final, defence is prone to making more mistakes. In such games, the key is always possession and United need to stop playing aerial in European finals. It was Barcelona, not Scunthorpe United.
Who is to say who the greatest ever footballer is? The entire universe and its mum gifted the title to Messi last week for his exploits primarily during the last two seasons. But, is it really that simple? Pele and Romario share 2200 goals between them, Cryuff gifted Total Football to the world, Eusebio ensured that Benfica and European Finals became synonymous, Maradonna single-'handedly' won a World Cup and single-handedly won Serie A titles for Napoli, Georgie Best taught strikers of the game that they're not merely poachers but if needed, can give Richard Branson a run for his money in terms of diversity, Gerd Muller showed the world that 'games played' and 'goals scored' can be the same; sometimes 'games played' can be less, Bergkamp proved that each one of 125+ goals scored in a career can be counted among 125 best goals scored ever, Zizou compelled 21 players to adjust and play at a pace that he decided and dictated: who else but Zizou would stand in front of Gianluigi Buffon in a World Cup Final and score the penalty with complete disdain.
Would Messi be as effective if playing in an era when the exploits of Lawrenson, Butcher, Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and co. playing in the English League would make WWE look like Sesame Street? Would Messi be as potent if playing for a cash strapped Napoli side with F-ALL for service? Would Messi do the business if he was earning 10 pounds a week like Dixie Dean and scoring 60 goals in 42 league games? Lionel Messi is a gem, but till the time he invents a bicycle kick of his own and contributes something new to the rich history of football, let's not belittle the great achievements of his predecessors. Its too soon for him to be dubbed the greatest ever footballer. Period.