There are, at first glance, seemingly few links between Manchester United and Roger Federer.
But the tennis superstar’s mentality and style of play was instrumental for United’s squad as they prepared to face Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final.
And it was all down to the club’s then-first team coach, René Meulensteen, who enjoyed 12 years at Old Trafford as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s key lieutenants over two separate spells.
The Dutchman’s plan worked as United overcame their Premier League rivals on penalties at a rain-soaked Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow to secure their third European Cup.
“I am a keen tennis fan and I have always admired Roger Federer and the way he controls his emotions,” Meulensteen tells me over coffee in Cheshire, where he still lives despite leaving Old Trafford five years ago.
“I selected five clips of Federer for the boys to watch and asked them to write down which tournament he was appearing in, which set it was and which point.
“They would identify, say, Wimbledon as the competition, but they couldn’t tell me which point or set it was.
“The point I made to them was that wherever Federer was playing, he was winning and performing at the highest level when it really mattered.
“He would win the first set, then lose the second and the third but, by the time the game reached match point, everything which had happened before didn’t matter because he was so focused on winning.”
Meulensteen made the analogy to Ferguson in training during the lead up to the Champions League final.
They had lost 2-1 at fellow title challengers Chelsea in a game sandwiched between the semi-final clashes with Barcelona and had to win against West Ham United at Old Trafford to keep their title charge going.
United duly thumped West Ham 4-1 and Wigan Athletic 2-0 on the last day of the season, meaning they beat Chelsea to the league by two points.
“I said to the boss after we had won against Barcelona that, even if we beat West Ham and Wigan and are champions, we have to press the restart button ahead of the Champions League final with Chelsea” Meulensteen says.
“We were 40-30 on our own serve, so it was our Federer moment and that is exactly where we needed to be.”
United headed to Russia in buoyant mood and took the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo in the 26h minute, only for Frank Lampard to equalise for Chelsea minutes before half-time.
One of the game’s turning points came in the second-half of extra time when Chelsea’s Didier Drogba was sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic.
It went to a penalty shoot-out and after Ronaldo had missed his spot-kick, Chelsea captain John Terry stepped up, knowing that if he scored the Champions League would be heading to Stamford Bridge for the first time.
But the England defender lost his footing and mis-hit the ball wide, leading to Nicolas Anelka needing to put away his penalty past Edwin van der Sar in sudden death – which he failed to do.
Meulensteen recalls: “If Drogba had been sent off earlier in the game I think we would have been able to capitalise properly, but it seemed to spur Chelsea on.
“When Terry came up to take the penalty, he thought, ‘This is all about me – all the lights are on me.’ He pushed his captain’s armband up, but he lost focus and slipped.
“The difference with us was that Nani, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and our other penalty takers were clinically focused.
“When Anelka stepped up, I couldn’t watch but I knew, whatever happened, Edwin was determined that he was going to stop that penalty because he was a winner – it was his Federer moment.
“To win the Champions League and share that euphoria with the players, the staff and the fans was an unbelievable feeling.”
By Simon Yaffe
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