IT’S not often that Alex Ferguson is described as gracious in defeat, but then again, it’s not often he gets so comprehensively beaten.

Throughout nearly a quarter century of managing Manchester United, we’ve seen Fergie blame defeat on everything from lumpy pitches to the colour of his own team’s jersey; and now he’s beaming while collecting a loser’s medal in the Champions League final? I thought I’d seen it all with the Pregnant Man!

The simple explanation for this strange phenomenon, this cosmic aberration, would be that there was no shame, no insult, to being beaten by the best team ever – even for Ferguson.

Now I wouldn’t be a good judge about the whole “best team ever” tag, having never seen the great Liverpool, Ajax, AC Milan or Real Madrid teams of old, but I’ll be damned if they were better than this Barcelona side.

In terms of this Manchester United team, I know plenty of United fans who’d agree they aren’t the best incarnation under Ferguson.

But then a friend put an interesting idea in my head – what if Ferguson’s greatest ever side were to play this Barcelona team? Would the great Scot had been able to beat this unstoppable Barca side with his best men to call upon?

We’ll never know for sure, but just humour me for a sec. My team had their assess whooped last weekend. This is how I mourn.

So the greatest side Fergie’s ever produced? I think few would disagree with the 1999 Treble winning team, who in one season overcame the brawn of the Premier League, the artistry of Arsenal, the continental pedigree of Juventus and the German efficiency of Bayern Munich.

They seemed to be able to overcome just about anything and anyone at the time, and it wasn’t always because they were technically the better team.

Against Bayern in ‘99 for example, United were well and truly outclassed after Bayern scored in the sixth minute.

United kept trying with their fancy passing game, but Bayern swatted everything away and counter-attacked with purpose. They hit the post twice in the second half from counters, and Peter Schmeichel also had to make some big saves to keep United in the game.

But the point is United kept trying. Ryan Giggs kept dribbling, David Beckham kept trying those impossible passes, Andy Cole kept toiling up front and little Nicky Butt stood his ground against the giant Steffan Effenberg.

Both Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer missed decent chances after coming on as substitutes, but as we all know, that didn’t stop them from trying either – two super-late injury-time goals from them wrote United into the history books.

In one word, that team had character. Bucket loads of it. It didn’t matter how great the other team was, or how bad they themselves were playing, they’d keep fighting for a way to win.

Now compare that with the XI that faced Barcelona. Once Barcelona started doing their little tiki-taka thing, their shoulders dropped.

Antonio Valencia was listless, Michael Carrick played all sorts of deperate passes, Javier Hernandez camped himself offside and even Park Ji-Sung stopped running.

To beat this Barcelona side, you need all eleven players to be fired up, to be closing down anything that moves and tackling anyone that stands. United got frustrated, lost confidence and with it, the game.

Roy Keane might have missed the ‘99 final, but even against this Barcelona team, he’d take on their whole midfield alone if he’d had to.

And as Paul Scholes demonstrated during his cameo over the weekend, he has the quality and composure to go toe-to-toe with Xavi and co. At his peak in ‘99, he’d have the stamina as well.

That United team’s style would have been perfect against Barcelona too. The Spaniards play a quick, short passing game, but United back then were more direct.

From Beckham at right-midfield to Dennis Irwin at left-back, they had players who could routinely pick each other out from 20-30 yards away. They stretched opponents with that ability to accurately spread play around, and against Barcelona, it could’ve helped them bypass the midfield and go straight into attacking positions.

Current strikers Rooney and Hernandez have very distinct roles – one the creator, one the finisher. The famous four in ‘99 – Cole, Sheringham, Solskjaer and Dwight Yorke – were all capable of doing both, in any combination.

So, the final verdict – would the Manchester United of 1999 have beaten the Barcelona of today? Would the fearless Keane have dominated Xavi and Iniesta, would Beckham have run Eric Abidal to the ground and come up with the winning cross, and would Solskjaer keep his composure to provide another unerring, last-minute finish?

Probably not. But they would have given it a right go.

The current United squad had just about enough quality to win the Premier League, but until they find that character to keep going when shiz gets rough, they’ll never be considered among the great teams of the past.

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