Ferguson hears call of history
If Sir Alex Ferguson was searching for omens to back the belief that Manchester United are supported by the weight of history when they meet Barcelona in the Champions League final, a sign arrived as he sat down to speak at Wembley.
Ferguson was at the scene - "a symbol of English football" as he described it - of United's first European Cup win against Benfica in 1968, the night Sir Matt Busby's rebuilding of a club shattered by the Munich Air Disaster was rewarded with the trophy he treasured as a pioneer prepared to go outside England to seek success.
And as Ferguson navigated his way through the historical context shaping United's third final in four years, a familiar sound filled the air in Wembley's media room, a sound that will have given heart to the superstitious among the Old Trafford entourage.
It was commentary of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer's winning goal in the dramatic 1999 final win against Bayern Munich in Barcelona's own Nou Camp, the ringtone on the phone belonging to Pat Crerand, one of Busby's boys and a hero of 1968.
It will take more than a happy coincidence to disturb Barcelona's rhythms as they attempt to repeat their emphatic win against United in Rome two years ago, but Ferguson and his players looked at home on the stage on Friday night.
Ferguson stood on the centre circle surveying their final training session with members of Old Trafford's ruling Glazer family watching intently from the sidelines as United put the finishing touches to their preparations.
Wayne Rooney, who carries so much of United's aspirations as they try to win the trophy for the fourth time, looked so primed for action that he could he could barely drag himself away from Wembley's beautifully manicured turf.
He lingered after his team-mates had disappeared down the tunnel, performing a few party pieces before leaving with a handshake for the Glazers, who invested so much in his talents when they responded to his threat to leave earlier this season with a lucrative new contract.
The world's media descended on Wembley to hear the words of Ferguson and his dignified Barcelona counterpart Pep Guardiola before a final that could draw a television audience of 400m, potentially the largest for any sporting club game.
A recent study suggested the winners could benefit to the tune of £110m when prize money, a lift to the club's profile and brand, enhanced media rights and subsequent rise in the value of the squad are all factored in.
So plenty is riding on the events that unfold on Saturday night, both on and off the pitch.
Wembley looked magnificent in its Champions League livery, with Barcelona's players looking equally relaxed as they went through their paces in the early evening sunlight.
Ferguson and Guardiola preside over two squads that bask in their unity. United's manager spoke of the "unity and trust" among his players while Barcelona's tight bonds were obvious even from their training session.
Pieces of skill, including one inevitably from Lionel Messi, were greeted with spontaneous applause from team-mates while rare mistakes brought mockery and hilarity in equal measure.
The serious business starts on Saturday and it is obvious the 2009 final casts a heavy shadow over this latest meeting between two of world football's superpowers. The finer points of that game have played a part in the planning of both Ferguson and his Catalan opposite number.
Guardiola, despite the praise poured on Barcelona's purist performance in Rome, surprised his audience inside Wembley by insisting they will lose if the play to a similar standard. A sign of exacting standards and perhaps a warning against complacency.
And as world governing body Fifa descends into open warfare amid investigations and alleged cash payments, with president Sepp Blatter about to faces its ethics committee, Europe's ruler Uefa has got the perfect showcase for its product in the shape of Barcelona and United.
"The success of these two clubs in the last decade has been enormous. It might not just be the final of the decade, it could be the best final of the decade," said Ferguson. We can nitpick that we are actually only one year into the decade but his meaning was clear.
Ferguson said almost from the moment United left Rome's Stadio Olimpico beaten and with many of his side bewildered by their treatment at Barcelona's feet that he knew exactly where it went wrong.
He said: "We are very focused this time and our preparation has been better. We maybe made one or two mistakes last time, but not this time.
"The players have to trust themselves and trust each other because I trust them. I know they'll do the job right. This team has unity and our record in Europe this year is good. We're used to playing in Europe, we have that experience and we're pleased with what we've achieved this year in Europe."
And it was the hurt inflicted on his and United's pride that will drive them more than revenge as they seek to follow up eclipsing Liverpool with a 19th domestic title by moving only one behind their record of five wins in this tournament.
Ferguson's own motivation is unquestioned even in his 70th year. The sight of the Manchester United sign shining above Old Trafford does the job.
He said: "This is a big game and I quite like big games. It's easy for me to be motivated because of the history of the club, the players I have, the training ground. I'm lucky like that.
"It's the right club for me and there is none better. It's easy for me to be motivated because I have the right product in front of me."
Whispers around Wembley on Friday suggested the Spanish contingent fear Barcelona's heavy programme may work against them when it counts. Guardiola's side have looked jaded in recent weeks while United, in contrast, have rotated their squad expertly and have looked at their strongest as the campaign reaches its climax.
Doubts about Barcelona's defence have been aired, with the searing pace of Javier Hernandez emerging as a key factor and one that has caused the Catalans genuine concern.
Ferguson must strike the perfect balance between defence and attack, which has led to suggestions "Chicarito" may start on the bench, but his partnership with Rooney has proved to be a potent spearhead and the manager's words showed his admiration for the young Mexican.
He said: "It has been an incredible season for the boy. No-one in our club thought he could achieve what he has achieved in his first season. He's got the temperament, speed, and movement. He's got all the things to be a good player for us on Saturday."
Whether that is from the start or as a substitute remains to be seen with Darren Fletcher's presence something of a wild card. Ferguson calls Fletcher "a big game player" and his absence through suspension was a key factor in Rome.
Will Ferguson resist the temptation to place him in the midfield mix despite recent illness, or will he go with Hernandez? It is the crucial selection call and its success could hold the key to the outcome.
Michael Carrick must show he has recovered from the trauma of Rome that set his career back two years when he faces Andres Iniesta and Xavi. If United lose control of midfield they lose the game - it was the law two years ago and it applies just as stringently at Wembley.
For all the talk of a weary Barcelona, their array of stars have graced a succession of major occasions in the last few years and have delivered almost every time. Tired legs may disappear when they see the famous old trophy on the sidelines.
Guardiola has done remarkable things in his short stint as Barcelona coach, and Ferguson revealed he almost brought him to Old Trafford before he left the Nou Camp for Brescia.
"A moment lost," Ferguson was how described it when recalling how Guardiola the player went elsewhere. Rome in 2009 was another moment lost for Ferguson and United; now they must grasp their opportunity at Wembley.