Vintage Scholes

Manchester United’s success is the sign of true substance. With their verve diminished, the side drew on their hardiness, writes Kevin McCarra.

Stubbornness more than style ensured that Manchester United are bound for Moscow, where they will seek to raise the European Cup a third time, in a final against Chelsea on May 21. On this evidence it will be hard to deny Sir Alex Ferguson’s team and the players must have shed any misgivings about their readiness to retain the Premier League title as well.

This was not the type of spectacle associated with Old Trafford. United’s great virtue here and at Camp Nou has been the capacity to thwart Barcelona and secure clean sheets. The outstanding players in this win were the left-back Patrice Evra, carried off in stoppage time, and the centre-half Wes Brown. The captain, Rio Ferdinand, was nearly as unyielding.

A place on the roll of honour must also be made for Paul Scholes. The veteran, rested for the defeat in the EPL match at Stamford Bridge on April 26, notched the only goal of this tie from 25 yards in the 14th minute. There was all too much time left, with the crowd reduced to sighing over the absence of the injured defender Nemanja Vidic even more than that of Wayne Rooney, who is still troubled by the blow to his hip he suffered recently.

This success is the sign of true substance. With their verve diminished, the side drew on their hardiness. It is difficult to say whether spectators or players were the more agonised as added time ran to six minutes because of Evra’s injury. The action had been excruciating earlier, too, when, the substitute Thierry Henry connected with a corner, only to head it into the grasp of Edwin van der Sar.

Admiration for Barcelona’s purist football has to be qualified by the recognition that they were largely innocuous over the three hours of the tie. Evra was outstanding in the key task of containing Lionel Messi, the single Barcelona player untouched by the decline at the club as the Frank Rijkaard era comes to its end.

For all that, the semifinal would have been a stalemate but for Scholes. The midfielder was suspended for the 1999 final against Bayern Munich and time is racing away from him. Having been taken off, he still appeared exhausted when joining the celebrations at the end. Nonetheless United will dread the day when the 33-year-old retires.

There was no sentiment in Fabio Capello’s efforts to talk to him into returning for England either. The Italian will have appreciated his talent all over again. When Gianluca Zambrotta mis-hit a clearance in panic he met with the worst fate as the ball ran to Scholes. The handsome finish went high past the left hand of Victor Valdes.

Scholes, so renowned as a predator, had scored for the first time since striking at Portsmouth in August. Nowadays he tends to be placed in the deeper positions appropriate to a personage of such seniority. Many United players were to find themselves packed in and around their own penalty area. The sight horrifies spectators conditioned to expect that their team will be the one in the ascendant. The volume rose, with the crowd praying a wall of noise would block Barcelona.

Ferguson himself had accepted that the semifinal would have this character. He is too experienced not to see the weariness in his side’s ranks or to anticipate the desperate eagerness of Barcelona. Over the matches the United manager has put the accent on defence. A pair of clean sheets were achieved entirely by design.

There was interest elsewhere and, if Park Ji-sung did not tear Rijkaard’s line-up apart, he was a constant nuisance. United’s durability and endeavour here went a long way towards vindicating Ferguson’s decision to rest Scholes and others at Chelsea.

Still, there was the trepidation that besets those with recollections of sorrow at this phase of the tournament. When Henry Ford said “History is bunk” he wanted to emphasise that all that matters is whatever comes next. Managers know that and Ferguson has special cause to agree fervently. He had, after all, been beaten in three out of his previous four appearances in the semifinals.

Now the manager can dwell on a 12th consecutive home victory in the competition. That target was met because Barcelona, for all their slickness, are disintegrating. Samuel Eto’o, to take one case history, is a woebegone character in futile search of the predatory skills he has mislaid.

United, circumspect as they were, had a sharper edge. Cries for penalties went unheard as the visitors reeled following the interval. Eric Abidal just beat Nani to a Ronaldo cross and Valdes had to parry one strong attempt from Carlos Tevez. United may have been peeved not to have doubled their advantage but at least Barcelona were pegged back.

That could not last and in the 64th minute a Deco free-kick was deflected wide. This was no Premier League saunter. United could not contain even a failing Barcelona on every occasion and it was telling that Ronaldo should be cautioned for a foul on Zambrotta committed well inside the opposition’s half.

Yaya Toure was no calmer when he slid into Park and collected a yellow card that would have kept him out of the final. Deep down he must have had the bitter consolation of knowing that no Barcelona player would be in Moscow. A resolute United simply would not allow it.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008