Former Manchester United coach Mike Phelan has given a fascinating insight into how he and Sir Alex Ferguson tried to cope with Barcelona in that infamous Champions League final in 2009.
In the end, it was a bit of a stroll for Barcelona, who won 2-0 and dominated possession throughout, while Lionel Messi punished Ferguson’s side just as they started to open up and attack more towards the end of the game.
Phelan, speaking to Jason Pettigrove for his new book Messi – The King of Camp Nou, admits the early goal was also a problem for Man Utd, because even though there was plenty of time for them to get back into the game in theory, this was a Barca side that they knew would hog the ball relentlessly.
“In a game of football of that magnitude, scoring early isn’t necessarily the be all and end all,” Phelan said. “Ten minutes into a game you feel as though you’ve still got a little bit to offer.
“The problem was it became a key moment, because when Barcelona got in front, even though we knew we’d get opportunities, it was going to be very difficult to wrestle possession from them. That was going to be a real issue.
“When someone is leading in a game and they’re of the magnitude of Barcelona, you think ‘ok there’s still 85 minutes left in the grand scheme of things’ but 75 minutes of that could be controlled by them. Opportunities for us were always going to be few and far between but one goal was never going to be the end of the world either.
“We went behind and Sir Alex and I were looking at how our players were going to react to that, what were the areas on the field where we could hurt them, and so our game began to change as the minutes ticked by.
“That last 20 minutes was when Barcelona had us really, because we had to open up a little bit more, we had to take more risks. Some games you see Barcelona play and they punish you in that final period with three or four goals.
“With Messi’s goal, there were elements of errors on our part for sure, but they put us in those positions. I think Messi himself finished it the way Messi does. There’s a lot you can get away with out on the field if you’re at a certain level, where it might take two or three opportunities before the opposition are clinical, but certainly in Messi’s case, give him one opportunity and he is clinical – that was the difference. We hoped he wouldn’t get that one opportunity but it was very difficult to stop it, and it didn’t help that we were making mistakes.
“Barcelona as a team, as soon as you make an error, they’re in your face and at you with their superior movement. It’s exactly what they do to teams. We were more than aware of those facts but it was still almost impossible to deal with them. They dominated us.”
Messi: The King of Camp Nou is published on 16 December 2021 and is available via Amazon.