Six Of The Best United Games Of The Decade
Yes, I know fully well that as the first decade started with the year 1, 2010 is actually the last year of the current decade. However, that's only maths: in practical usage we always talk about the sixties, seventies etc. - and 1970 is not the last year of the sixties.
So, this is the last day of the decade and before I would find my way to a party tonight I'll put up my favourite United games of the period between 2000-2009, in strictly chronological order. Remember, it's not a definitive list: these are my favourite games, I do not claim that these were the best United performances of the decade.
1. Manchester United 6-1 Arsenal, 25 February 2001
What a weird game this was. Arsenal, 13 points adrift of the Manchester United machine, fielded a back four which looked quite bizarre for a team that was supposed to be title contender: Grimandi, Luzhny, Stepanovs, Cole. And they were cut to shreds by a ruthless United side. But what is often forgotten is that though Yorke put us ahead in the 2nd minute, Arsenal actually responded well and deserved to equalise at the end of the first 15 minutes. They did not play badly up to that point.
But the goal woke up the beast and Yorke sprang to life again: within 7 minutes he completed his hat-trick, cruelly exposing the extreme gaps in Arsenal's makeshift back four. It was clear that United would not let the gooners back into the game again: Roy Keane, not for the first nor the last time, totally dominated Patrick Vieira and Ray Parlour looked every bit the crude butcher he was and not at all a footballer. It was 5-1 at the break and only United's contentment spared them from the embarassment of losing by double figures. The gulf in class was way too obvious and we as good as won the league that day.
2. Newcastle United 2-6 Manchester United, 12 April, 2003
In the light of Newcastle's recent ordeals it is somewhat difficult to recall them being serious contenders. But they were: with a win on this April Saturday they would have been only three points behind ourselves and Arsenal, with an Arsenal v Manchester United game coming up. As United were given a harsh lesson in Madrid in midweek Newcastle had plenty of reasons for confidence and their optimism seemed justified when Jenas' thunderbolt put them ahead after only 20 minutes.
However, United were not to be thwarted that day. Those last few weeks of 2002/03 represented the last hurrah of the Treble side: Nicky Butt, Ole Solskjaer, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs all excelled and even the increasingly marginalised David Beckham played his part though he sat out this game on the bench. But we were deadly without him: Solskjaer equalised with half an hour gone, turning in a Giggs cross and five minutes later we were two goals ahead, thanks to the majestic Paul Scholes who enjoyed the best season of his life. In the second half he completed his hat-trick and though Forlan missed about five glorious chances after coming on as a substitute, we could afford to chuckle indulgently. This afternoon was perfect and the message to Arsenal was clear: we want our trophy back.
3. Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid, 23 April 2003
Yes, we were eliminated; yes, we could not cope with Ronaldo; yes, there were better United performances in the Champions League (like the 2-0 dismantling of a very good Deportivo side in their own backyard in 2002) - but what a wonderful game of football this was, one of the best ever played at Old Trafford. We were coming into this game on the back of excellent league form but carrying a 3-1 defeat from the first leg and our hopes of going through were dealt a savage blow when, with barely 10 minutes gone, Ronaldo left Ferdinand trailing in his wake and beat Fabien Barthez with a shot at his near post.
But United's response was tremendous and though Madrid played refined, easy-on-the-eye passing game, our high tempo and constant movement did make them very uncomfortable. We played excellent attacking football and though all our goals were scrappy, apart from Beckham's equaliser (our third leveller of the night) which was one of his best free-kicks in a United shirt. Ronaldo stole the show with his hat-trick and we went behind three times and barely had a realistic chance of going through but I'll always remember this night with fondness: this was football at its very best, with two excellent attacking teams playing at a very high standard. It's a shame it wasn't the final, especially as the actual final, staged at Old Trafford, was such a soul-destroyingly dull event.
4. Arsenal 2-4 Manchester United, 1 February 2005
The height of our rivalry with Arsenal, the most intense and hate-filled game against them - and one of the most brilliant, too. One of the first occasions when the 4-3-3 formation worked flawlessly for United: in the absence of the injured Van Nistelrooy we had an extremely mobile front three of Ronaldo, Rooney and Giggs and they were unstoppable. United did not flinch even when Vieira gave Arsenal the lead but kept on playing attacking football and Giggs soon equalised and Rooney hit the post before Bergkamp put Arsenal ahead again in the second half.
What came after can now be seen as an ominous warning to the rest of the world: for the first time ever, we got to see the full potential of Cristiano Ronaldo who scored a brilliant goal then an easy tap-in to turn the game on its head. Our defence kept the season's best attacking team at bay for the rest of the game without serious trouble, even when Silvestre was sent off for a headbutt on Ljungberg (though by that time Arsenal also should have been down to 10 men, for Pires' nasty lunge at Fletcher who was magnificent that day, along with Roy Keane who played his last great game for United) and in stoppage time the game reached its climax: Saha put through John O'Shea who, with the deftest of touches, chipped the ball over Almunia and turned away with a disbelieving smile on his face. It was a goal we'll never forget.
5. Manchester United 7-1 AS Roma, 10 April, 2007
This was, quite clearly, the peak of Fergie's latest great team, just as the destruction of Juventus in Turin was the peak of the Treble side. The squad was down to the bare bones that night, Scholes the biggest absentee through suspension and there were concerns that we might lack the creativity to break them down (don't forget that Roma won the first leg 2-1). But the 11 players on the pitch refused to let such trivial matters as a lengthy injury list distract them: led by the utterly magnificent Michael Carrick we destroyed the Italians, playing the kind of football which you usually see only in movies.
Afterwards the focus was on Cristiano Ronaldo who scored twice but even though he enjoyed a fantastic season he wasn't that brilliant that night: he scored the fourth and the fifth but somehow he was placed in the centre of attention again. But this night the performance was orchestrated by Carrick and Giggs; the season's best player was merely the executor of their plans. And Carrick wasn't too shabby in executing, either... Unforgettable night with wonderful goals and relentless attacking football.
6. Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea, 21 May 2008
The rain pouring down on Moscow; Ronaldo giving United the lead with a firmly struck header; Tevez (twice) and Carrick coming very, very close to add another; Lampard's freak goal; Drogba hitting the post; Lampard hitting the bar; Terry clearing Giggs' shot off the line; Drogba getting sent off in extra time; the world's best player and the season's best player missing the penalty in the shootout; the Chelsea captain slipping in the rain, thus sending the otherwise decisive penalty wide of the post; Ryan Giggs, beating Bobby Charlton's appearance record, slotting home United's last penalty; Anelka shooting and Van der Sar diving to his right to save it - Shakespeare would have been hard pushed to write a more compelling drama as everything about this night was memorable and unforgettable.
What I have forgotten since is what happened immediately after Edwin saved Anelka's penalty. Everything went totally black for a few minutes and it took a long time for all of us watching together to regain normal consciousness. But who could blame us? After all, the nine years that have passed since 1999 seemed like an eternity. We almost forgot what it feels like to celebrate victory in a Champions League final.