Date:Thursday May 22 2008
No, this article is NOT about the final itself. That has been covered already. I want to talk about the whole season, what we did in Europe since September.
The seeding system, based on past achievements, was never going to allow really difficult groups to be drawn in the Champions League. Still, the quarter United got into was tougher than what we failed to get past in 2005/06.
We were already aware of the qualities of Roma who are improving steadily in the Serie A - after finishing 22 points behind Inter last season they now pushed them to the wire. Sporting are a happy hunting place for United for new talents and though they could not have major ambitions they are full of gifted players who can hurt any side.
Dynamo Kiev might not be the fearsome force they were at the end of the '90s (interesting note: their famous strikeforce of Shevchenko and Rebrov utterly and miserably failed in England) but visiting Ukraine is never a fun trip. So it wasn't an easy group by any means.
Yet United made light work of it. We weren't at our attacking best, we haven't reached the heights regularly displayed in the league or even last season's home displays in Europe but five wins and a draw was the best performance of the group stages by some distance. Only the games against the Ukrainians yielded victories with bigger margins than the odd goal but the fact is that even our reserve team held Roma comfortably to a 1-1 draw in the intimidating Stadio Olimpico.
While Chelsea got a very, very limited Olympiakos side in the knockout round, we were drawn against Olympique Lyon, winners of six successive French league titles - and since then they've won the seventh. They boast such talents as Hatem Ben Arfa who, according to the rumours, is wanted by Barcelona and Arsenal, or Karim Benzema who was of course linked with United and several other European superpowers.
Yet United were the better team in France, missing a great chance via Rooney. Then we fell behind to a brilliant goal by Benzema but we never gave in. Fergie brought off Scholes and Giggs, replacing them with Anderson and Nani and United laid siege. It was eventually rewarded though Lyon held firm until the end - but they could not stop Carlos Tevez poking the ball into the net from close range.
The second leg saw United completely dominating the first half, barely letting Lyon out of their own area. We eventually took the lead through Ronaldo then were content to sit back and hit them on the counter. We had to endure a few nervous moments though as the illness that haunted us all season returned: we failed to put away the chances when it really mattered.
Still, we were comfortably through and it looked like a lesson learnt as we did not squander opportunities in Rome where we had to face our old and now well-known foes again. The in-form Italian team was limited to half-chances for most of the first half then a sweeping United move saw Cristiano Ronaldo heading the ball home powerfully. Rooney added the second midway through the second half after the Reds rode their luck a bit and Roma, Italy's best team at that time, fell to pieces and we should have scored another couple of goals.
In the second leg, Fergie could afford to rest Evra, Rooney and Ronaldo and the understrength United team still registered a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win as Hargreaves delivered his best performance in the Red shirt. We were in the semi-final without breaking sweat - and not against Olympiakos or Fenerbahce but AS Roma.
An even bigger test awaited us in the semis. FC Barcelona. The winners of 2006 who on paper are the strongest team in Europe. We were rocked by the absence of Vidic but still limited them to only one serious chance at their intimidating home and even missed an early penalty that could have put us in an even better position.
In the second leg, we were without Nemanja Vidic again and Wayne Rooney was also absent and without the young striker we seem to lose too often. Yet United were not to be denied: once again, Barcelona with all their glittering attackers failed to create anything despite all the possession in the world while United's counter-attacks scared the hell out of them. A brilliant Scholes effort was enough though it would have been much calmer had Park, Nani and Ronaldo put away their chances. Never mind - we were in Moscow!
So, United registered five wins and a draw in a demanding group. Beat the French champions comfortably. Beat the Italian runners-up even more comfortably. Without Vidic held Barcelona goalless for 180 minutes, created the better chances and scored a great goal. We conceded the least goal in the competition. We provided the competition's top scorer, Cristiano Ronaldo. And we won the whole thing unbeaten. Are United worthy winners then? Obviously.
Date:Thursday May 22 2008
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