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Heart of the attack

sports Updated: May 26, 2009 23:51 IST

Alex Ferguson’s “dream final” in Wednesday’s Champions League showdown could turn into a nightmare for Barcelona if Manchester United smother the Spaniards and seal victory on the counter-attack.

It is hardly the scenario the neutrals are hoping for but Ferguson knows the best chance of United becoming the first team to retain the title in the Champions League era is to frustrate his free-scoring opponents at every turn.

They did it a year ago, shutting out Barcelona twice in a 1-0 aggregate semifinal victory, and would have taken heart from the way Chelsea kept them at bay for more than 120 minutes in the semis before Andres Iniesta’s stoppage-time strike.

United’s defence has been magnificent this season and, assuming Rio Ferdinand is fit to line up in the middle alongside Nemanja Vidic, it should be at full strength.

It is United's hard-working midfield, though, which has helped limit the rest of the Premier League to just 24 goals against them.

In the Champions League they let in only three in the group stage and four in six knockout games against Inter Milan, Porto and Arsenal.

The non-stop running of Park Ji-sung and the game-reading of Michael Carrick provide a first line of defence that would make any back four look good.

United have perfected the art of sucking teams in then striking on the break, a tactic shown at its best when Ronaldo started and finished, after a lung-bursting 60 metre sprint, their marvellous third goal in the semi-final win at Arsenal.

That is exactly the sort of thing Ferguson will be looking for on Wednesday, particularly as Barcelona look vulnerable at the back after the suspension of Eric Abidal and Dani Alves and the injury that has ruled out Rafael Marquez.

Manager Pep Guardiola, who rested almost all his first team for Saturday's 1-0 league defeat by Osasuna, is also sweating on the fitness of Iniesta and Thierry Henry.

Like United, Barcelona have sown up their league title with time to spare and both have also claimed a domestic cup.

But also like United, who suffer in comparison with Liverpool's European exploits, the Spaniards desperately crave the European Cup that they have won just twice in comparison with Real Madrid's nine.

They will go about that task with patience in Rome, backing their approach and looking for the relentless probing of Iniesta and Xavi to eventually prize an opening that Henry, Messi or Samuel Eto'o will be able to seize upon.