The King, Rosbif and Cruyff

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Elvis, Great Gatsby, Mourinho’s coat. Those are, alas, my only notes from Rome.

They refer to a United fan who must have been as hot as the surface of Mercury walking around the sticky Eternal City in an Elvis jumpsuit and wig, a Barcelona supporter wearing a T-shirt with the original cover of The Great Gatsby on it and two fans at Rome airport wearing a limited edition T-shirt bearing the legend “Mourinho’s coat 2005” and a silhouette of the special one.

Can anyone tell me where I can get one of these?

I planned to take notes during the game – I even bought a compact, bijou Silvine notebook – but it was so hot in the Stadio Olimpico the ink would have melted on the page.

And the game was too absorbing, a better spectacle in the atmospheric stadium than on television where 300 million viewers across the world saw probably the most one-sided UEFA Champions League final since Porto’s efficient demolition of Monaco in 2004.

"It ain't half hot mum..."

I watched the match from nine rows behind the United bench. Just behind me was Rudi Voller and, two rows behind to my right, sat Roman Abramovich who watched the game with a diplomat’s pleasant inscrutability.

As someone who has been writing about football for 15 years, I ought to have acquired a protective layer of professional cynicism, but my heart skipped when I brushed shoulders with Johan Cruyff just before the match.

Most of the great players come to these games brimming with bonhomie. In contrast, Cruyff looked grumpy and disappeared to the remotest corner of the lounge as if in retreat from his own myth. Oddly, this only increased my respect for him.

At half-time, I was wondering what Cruyff would make of the game. Barcelona were murdering United 1-0 but was the No.14 reminded of a similar master class – given by the Dutch to West Germany in 1974 – which backfired badly?

Football writers always write with hindsight as if they had foreseen every outcome. So, as soon as the whistle blew, Barcelona’s victory was declared inevitable.

That isn’t quite how I saw it at half-time.

Like most United fans, I expected Sir Alex to say the right things and make the right changes to make the second half truly competitive. And I wondered if Pep Guardiola’s team might regret not converting their superiority into a more decisive lead.

You can’t fault Ferguson’s bravery – by the end of the game he had withdrawn almost every tackling midfielder as he chased the goal that might change the dynamic of the match – but nothing worked.

The random comments from United fans around me (“Is it me or is Anderson completely out of his depth?” and persistent growls of “Carrick!”) registered their incredulity as United failed, after the first nine minutes, to play with any great conviction, belief or accuracy.

They registered only two shots on target and, fatally, gave the ball away too often to a side that took ages to give it back.

Barcelona’s pressing in attack and midfield was superb, leaving the two opponents Guardiola genuinely feared – Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney – increasingly isolated.

For me, the United player who impressed in the second half was Dimitar Berbatov who, as commentators like to say, “should have done better” with his header but kept the ball, played some good passes and showed, at times, why Ferguson values him.

Perhaps one of the paradoxical lessons from this strange kind of defeat is that if United are to rank alongside Real Madrid, they need more players like Berbatov, not less.

Berbatov and Rooney wonder what might have been

Rooney was, the Italian daily La Repubblica declared, “disastroso.” That was harsh. Misused might have been a better term.

Rooney has the energy and discipline to play on the flank tracking back but, against the very best sides, this does diminish his threat. If he can’t play behind a striker in a more advanced Gerrard-style role, he could be encouraged, like Messi, to cut inside when the moment was right.

On his day, Rooney can lose any defender in the world but he is much more dangerous creating that space and opportunity in front of the penalty area than on the flanks.

After the game, an alumni of French football characterised the game as a blow for the “Monsieur Rosbif” school of football.

United don’t play “Rosbif” football, but were so far below their potential in Rome that neutrals probably saw this as the traditional contest between continental finesse and British brute force. (The New York Times said as much in a headline.)

Defeat will spur Ferguson on. On the plane home, he was probably reflecting on how his team could be improved.

United won the Premier League with ease but, being an obsessive, perfectionist team builder, Ferguson will know that United have shown an odd fragility against the very best opposition.

United won the Premier League with 90 points, but only five of those were earned against Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool.

The Premier League is not, as Richard Keys and his ilk insist, the best league in Europe. It is almost as monotonously uncompetitive as the SPL.

What it does best is breed sides that can win away at Hull with metronomic regularity.

A very different kind of team, tactics and performance were required for United to complete the Italian job and, against a Barcelona team inspired by the opportunity to prove their greatness, they were found wanting.

I found the alacrity, respect and affection with which Guardiola embraced Ferguson after the game strangely moving. Or maybe it was just the heat.

"I really need to get out of this suit, don't you?"

Guardiola has been fulsome in his praise for Ferguson, extolling the Scot’s trophy-winning longevity. So, even after being congratulated by King Juan Carlos in the dressing room, Guardiola will know he is not the best coach in the world.

But he has created a great team that has entranced the game with a style that suggests the European Cup could be on the verge of a golden era.

Tactically, a senior Italian football bod suggested, Rome was no classic. But Barcelona’s style is an intriguing hybrid of two schools.

The possession, movement and versatility belonged to the Dream Team/Cruyff/Rinus Michels tradition but this was allied to the organized, pressing style first expounded by Arrigo Sacchi.

The morning after, Frank Rijkaard strode through the hotel foyer.

Guardiola’s class of 2009 is better than Rijkaard’s class of 2006, but the speed with which Rijkaard’s team fragmented is a useful reminder for Guardiola – the first non-Dutch coach to win the European Cup for Barcelona – that sometimes the truly difficult bit isn’t winning, it’s what happens next.

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