Date:Thursday April 10 2008
Without Rooney (OK, he played 15 minutes), Ronaldo, Nani, Scholes, Vidic and Evra, United were still too good for Roma.
Miracles DO happen, occasionally - but it's not usual that the visiting teams are the beneficiaries of them at Old Trafford. And if you even miss a penalty here then you can't expect the supernatural forces to act for you.
Fergie named a balanced line-up with a very strong central midfield and gave a starting berth to Mikael Silvestre for whom it was the first taste of first team action since September when he suffered that ligament injury at Goodison Park.
In the first 30 minutes, the crowd did not have to spare a thought for Ronaldo and Rooney as United were breathtaking going forward. Hargreaves, Park and Carrick all influential, Roma could not cope with the pace and incisiveness of our attacks. It looked as though we trail by two goals...
Tevez, Park, Giggs and the excellent Hargreaves all missed great chances to give United the lead, Brown headed over the bar after a corner and an Anderson shot caused plenty of problems for Doni. Roma tried to play their one-touch, fluid passing football but their moves were going nowhere and usually ended in the one-man brick wall that was Carrick in front of the defence.
Things settled down a bit after the frantic opening 25-30 minutes but it looked like the tie would be blown wide open by a huge refereeing gaffe: with Mancini going nowhere, Brown got across to tackle him perfectly. The Brazilian fell like a dying swan and the Norwegian referee pointed to the spot.
To be honest, I was not unduly worried. I felt that even if Roma take the lead, we have more than enough in the tank to win the match and elimination was out of the question for me. But of course justice prevailed as De Rossi blazed the penalty high over the bar.
This miss lulled United into a false sense of security. Roma's attacks were suddenly a lot sharper and Van der Sar had to alert a couple of times to keep them out and Brown produced a fantastic block to thwart De Rossi from backheeling the ball into the net.
The second half started in similar fashion, with United appearing to lack focus while Roma searched for the killer touch but it eluded them, despite hopeful long-range shooting and some nice passing football. But they soon ran out of steam, in start contrast with our fresh, much-rotated players who grew stronger as the minutes went by.
For the last 30 minutes, United were in absolute control and picked off Roma repeatedly on the break. One of these counter-attacks finally bore fruit with twenty minutes from time left: Tevez created space for himself following a darting run from the halfway line, played the ball to Hargreaves who, after surging down the right, produced an inch-perfect cross that was converted via a superb diving header by Tevez who sprinted 20 yards to get there.
It took the life and soul out of Roma. Ferguson quickly sent on Rooney and O'Shea, replacing the excellent Carrick and the reasonably useful Giggs as it was evident that there will no dramatic comeback from the Italians. Therefore, the only meaningful event of the remaining minutes happened in the 81st minute - but it was a memorable one.
Old Trafford simply exploded as the PA announced that Anderson will be replaced by Gary Neville, the skipper who has not played since March 17 of the previous year. His every touch was cheered wholeheartedly as he formed a rather unusual partnership with John O'Shea - in central midfield.
So, to put things into perspective: it was a Champions League quarter-final against the second best team of Italy. Yet Fergie could afford to play Silvestre from the start, leave Ronaldo and Scholes on the bench and play the final 10 minutes with an O'Shea-Gary Neville central midfield. That's what I'd call superiority.
Barcelona laboured to another thoroughly unconvincing 1-0 win over Schalke, not the most indimating opponents. However, with Messi probably back in business, the Catalans will be an entirely different proposition in the semi-final.
Yet one can't help but feel excited at the thought that United will return to the scene of the most dramatic Champions League final ever, to the venue where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ensured he will be forever remembered as a legend by sealing the glorious Treble.
Oh, and on a sidenote: the last two Barca v United games were pretty enjoyable, huh?
Date:Thursday April 10 2008
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