A Game To Remember: May 16, 1999
Manchester United need a win to secure the title after a long, hard race to the finish line. The opposition have nothing to play for and there are murmurs that they are keen to see the Reds end up Champions. United still have a European Cup final to play for. Familiar?
This is the case right now, of course but it was the case back in 1999, in the famous Treble season. United, playing brilliant football throughout the season, edged ahead of an Arsenal side which's success was mainly based on defensive resilience.
It went down right to the wire: United were one point ahead and had a marginally better goal difference so a win was enough to take the title whereas a draw or a defeat would have sufficed only if Arsenal had not won the game.
United's opponents were Spurs, at Old Trafford, Spurs who won the League Cup that season, like this time. They were managed by George Graham whose unceremonious departure from Arsenal and of course the fact that he was managing Tottenham sparked some speculation about whether they would simply roll over at Old Trafford - much like what Wigan is accused with these days.
Back then of course we were due an appearance in the Cup Final, too but it did not influence Fergie's team selection very much. It was a little surprise that he left out Andy Cole and opted for Teddy Sheringham but the Reds fans were in optimistic mood in the Manchester sunshine.
United could have got off to a dream start as Ian Walker's clearance rebounded off Yorke and hit the post. But then we gave away a silly goal to Les Ferdinand - it was a classy piece of finishing though - and were suddenly staring into the abyss.
The interesting thing was that even at one goal down we were on top as Arsenal were only drawing against Aston Villa at Highbury. But United did not want to place their fate in the hands of John Gregory's men: we simply battered Spurs but came up against an inspired Ian Walker who was determined to make up for his early mistake.
Chances came and went - a close-range Scholes effort and a Beckham header were the picks of the bunch - and self-doubt started to creep in to Old Trafford. But as the anxiety became too frenzied, we finally managed a breakthrough. Scholes stole the ball on the halfway line, carried it forward and passed it to Giggs who knocked it to Beckham who was inside the area. From the right side, he curled in an unstoppable effort into the far corner to celebrate wildly in front of the East Stand.
Old Trafford exploded with relief and Fergie decided to take off Teddy - who, if truth to be told, wasn't at his best - and introduce Andy Cole. His decision was vindicated almost immediately as the striker controlled a brilliant long ball and lobbed it over Walker with a delicate precisity.
United were in front and in the driving seat but the squandered chances made it an uncomfortable Sunday afternoon, especially after news filtered through that Arsenal took the lead against Villa. But Spurs never seriously threatened, just huffed and puffed so it was a comfortably enough victory.
But it was fitting that the final minutes were so painstaking - the fine line between success and failure was so evident throughout that season. As the final whistle was blewn and the stadium exploded with joy we did not know that the biggest drama is yet to come. Fergie was hugging the members of his staff and his players deliriously though only the first part of the job was done.
But it was done and it gave us such confidence that even Bayern Munich's early goal could not evaporate and not even the two efforts that hit the post and crossbar respectively. We knew it was our year and so it proved.
Now we do not have the chance to seal the title at Old Trafford and do not have an FA Cup Final to look forward to. But if we secure the title again, it will the perfect preparation for Moscow. But please do not make it so difficult for ourselves like we did against Spurs. I don't know if I could bear it. Though if I survived it on that occasion...
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