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Man Utd: be scared, very scared, of Barca

If Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was on Twitter, what thoughts would he have shared from watching Barcelona peel apart Real Madrid?

"Help! I'm next ..." perhaps? Or "Anyone want to take my place in goal in the Champions League final?"

Van der Sar is no chicken, of course. The truth is he'll be relishing the chance to end his trophy-studded career at Wembley on May 28.

Nor is United manager Alex Ferguson in the habit of telling his players to be scared ... very, very scared. But that doesn't mean that we cannot be scared for them.

Assuming United finishes off German side Schalke in their semifinal second leg on Wednesday, which should not be too hard given its two-goal cushion from the first match, Ferguson will have three weeks to formulate a cunning masterplan to beat the world's best team.

That will need to be a true diamond of a plan. Three weeks may not be long enough.

It's been said before, it will be said again, but it can't be said enough: This lot from Barcelona are seriously good.

Like his coach Pep Guardiola, we all long ago exhausted our stock of compliments for Lionel Messi, the Argentine who may be small but will be an Everest for Ferguson to overcome at Wembley. Diego Maradona's heir was the difference in the two-game semifinal, with his two goals in the first leg making a Madrid rebound pratically impossible in Tuesday's return game.

"Our flagship," Guardiola calls him.

If Ferguson somehow finds the anti-Messi Kryptonite that eluded Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and beats Barcelona with his team that is far from the best he has managed in his quarter-century at United, it could rank as arguably the greatest of the Scotsman's many achievements.

Ferguson will be crossing all of his fingers and toes that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic aren't injured in United's last three Premier League games. Without their partnership, the tough task of defending against Messi's heartstopping runs and prescient passes could be impossible. And since Messi pops up everywhere, Ferguson could really do with a young Paul Scholes or a Roy Keane to police the midfield with iron-booted authority, which he doesn't really have.

Ferguson also will be hoping that Chelsea's late charge for the English Premier League title falters this weekend at Old Trafford. If United loses that match and the title race remains poised on a knife's edge up to the last games on May 22, United could be short of time to rest key players for the Champions League final six days later.

Barcelona, on other hand, could clinch its third consecutive La Liga title this weekend if it beats Espanyol at the Camp Nou and Madrid fails to win at Sevilla. Guardiola could have not only the better team at Wembley but the fresher one, too. He's already planning to give his players at least one week off, maybe more, ahead of May 28.

Ferguson has the miracle of 1999 — when two injury-time goals against Bayern Munich secured his first Champions League title — to remind himself and his team that no outcome is written in advance.

"Football, bloody hell!" were his immortal words after that unlikely win. That memorable final was played at the Camp Nou, where Madrid on Tuesday never looked likely to pull off a similar feat and stop Barca from advancing. The 1-1 draw gave Barcelona a 3-1 win over the two games.

Those who sympathize with Mourinho's conspiracy theories that Barcelona gets help from and is protected by referees and the other powers in soccer will argue that Madrid should have had a goal in the first minute of the second half.

They would be right.

Gonzalo Higuain's score off a neat pass from Cristiano Ronaldo should have counted. Instead, Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere inexplicably faulted Ronaldo for falling into the path of Barcelona's Javier Mascherano, tripping him, after a shoulder-barge from Gerard Pique. Bizarre.

Still, even if the goal had stood, Madrid never looked like it would become only the third team in Champions League history to advance in a knockout round after losing the first leg at home. Ronaldo, in particular, rarely seemed to have much belief that the unlikely was possible — this when, more than ever, Madrid needed a special night from its star player. Ronaldo, again this season, is proving not to be Messi's equal. In 90 minutes Tuesday, Madrid had just one shot on target — from Marcelo for the second-half goal that canceled out Pedro Rodriguez's opening strike for Barcelona.

If not for great goalkeeping from Iker Casillas, Madrid could have been several goals down in the first half. A five-minute spell when Casillas saved two shots from Messi and acrobatically got a finger to a strike from David Villa should have provoked beads of sweat on Van der Sar's brow.

The absence of Mourinho, banned from the sideline and Madrid's locker room for disrespecting the referees in the first leg, was clearly felt. Madrid looked leaderless without its master motivator.

Like Guardiola, we can breathe a sigh of relief that this series of four Madrid-Barcelona games in 18 days is over. The two sides brought the worst out of each other. Tuesday's game wasn't as ugly as the "Hell Classico" in Madrid last week. But it wasn't memorable either.

A United-Barcelona final should be better. Ferguson isn't going to employ the stifling and negative defensive tactics that Mourinho stooped to. He has more faith in Wayne Rooney and whoever will partner him in United's attack than Mourinho showed in his own forwards against Barcelona.

"A great team with a lot of quality up front and a great manager," Barcelona's Xavi says of United. "Should be a great final, no doubt."

Hard to see United winning, though.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.