Lookin' Back On 2008: A Magical Year For United
You may say, and with good reason, that I've spent the last few weeks of 2008 complaining about United's dire performances and that for me this year hardly ended on a high. True, yet still, I'll always think about 2008 as a wonderful year for Manchester United.
Cause poor performances apart, it was stunning. We can be as optimistic as ever now, entering 2009 but it certainly won't surpass 2008, the year we won everything and some more.
United landed four trophies in the calender year and though the Community Shield and the World Club Cup are hardly among the most prestigious awards, the Champions League and Premier League trophies definitely belong in that category. We've got still more closer to Liverpool's record of 18 league titles and won that elusive second Champions League trophy which was supposed to set Fergie apart from the greatest managers.
On the first day of 2009 there can be no doubt that he's equal to any of the greatest names in football's history, even though the doubters will certainly say that United were 'lucky' in both finals. Well, weren't Barcelona 2006, for example, a great side? Yet they hardly squeezed past a desperately mediocre Arsenal in the final who, despite their numerical disadvantage, could have finished off Barca at 1-0 - Henry bottling it, of course. But I digress.
The 2008 title race was more exciting than any since 2003 when United beat Arsenal to it. This time the Gunners fell away in April and unfancied Chelsea chased us to the wire - yet there can be no doubt that the best team won the league: we had the most wins, scored the most goals, conceded the fewest, boasted the best player and most importantly, collected the most points.
I hold up my hands and admit that our Champions League run was nowhere near as fascinating as in 1999. We squeezed past Lyon, comfortably overwhelmed Roma but the real excitement came against an out-of-sorts Barcelona side which nevertheless pulled itself together to put on a real show - yet they hardly threatened the United goal as our defense was rock-solid even in the absence of the injured Vidic.
Then there was the brilliant story of Paul Scholes who was written off by many (myself included) after his injury yet he was promised a place in the final - and he made sure we got to that final with an absolutely stunning strike, one of the best goals of his career. Shame it didn't come in front of the Stretford End - Valdes was stretching desperately in front of the East Stand crowd - but you can't have everything.
All season, the side showed admirable mental strength and we simply refused to be beaten. Remember Tevez's last minute goals at Tottenham, Lyon and most importantly, Blackburn? Ronaldo's twice-taken penalty against Arsenal in a crunch game? Hargreaves's astonishing free-kick in the same game? Rooney's clever flick past Hahnemann at Reading where we looked set to be frustrated after squandering dozens of clear chances? And the sweetest of all - in the league - Giggs' cool, composed finish at Wigan to give us the 10th Premier League title.
But nowhere this mental strength was more important than in Moscow where we were within inches of defeat, defeat that would have been unjust whatever the Chelsea camp say now. We simply played the off the park for the first half, we should have had it in the bag by the interval but for bad luck and Cech's miraculous saves. And of course Chelsea's typical luck intervened, Lampard scored a goal only he can, pouncing on the ball after two logic-defying deflections... and it was all uphill, their superior stamina told and they were the better team in the second half though they mostly threatened from long-shots.
Extra-time was a more even affair, Lampard hitting the post and Terry heading the ball off the line from Giggs' effort. Penalties it was and... no, really, I won't describe that, we all remember that. Anelka's penalty is now my all-time sweetest footballing memory along with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's winner at the Nou Camp... We've spent a lot of time worrying about United during the spring but it was worth it, the moment of euphoria was worth it all.
Yeah, it wasn't only highs though, I know that. Losing at Liverpool and Arsenal in the autumn were sucker punches and the undeserved defeat at Stamford Bridge in April prevented us from celebrating the title at Old Trafford... And there was the FA Cup exit - with a very good performance though, mind you - and the Super Cup defeat at the hands of Zenit. But all these minor setbacks should be forgotten now: the fact is that 2008 saw one of the most brilliant Manchester United teams conquering Europe and the world.
Happy New Year for all of you and let's hope that 2009 will be no worse than 2008.