Date:Thursday May 24 2007
While the final was a boring game in the extreme, United's run in the Champions League did not threaten anyone with boredom.
Throughout the season the Reds have been consistently displaying their disturbing habit of making things hard for themselves. It was evident during the group stages, during the quarter-finals and finally, the semi-finals when we bowed out of the competition in humiliating fashion.
But let's begin at the beginning.
The group stage
Benfica, Celtic, Kobenhavn. Looked quite good at the time of the draw and it started brightly. We beat Celtic 3-2 in a game full of attacking intent then paid our debts to Benfica with a hard-fought 1-0 win at Lisbon. Disposing of Kobenhav was always going to be easy and suddenly we found ourselves in the jaws of qualification. However, we have almost snatchted elimination instead.
A second-string team lost in a disastrously dull game at Copenhagen then we controlled our game in Glasgow until the 80th minute when the ref gave a free-kick for a non-existent foul and of course Nakamura curled it in. Saha missed a sitter and a penalty in the last 10 minutes and now we were in danger. Benfica took the lead at Old Trafford, evoking painful memories of 2005 but the Reds responded in style, scoring three goals past Quim and booking their place in the second round.
United v Lille
Controversial but dull. We did well in the first half in France then Lille took control but Giggs scored the winner with a cheeky free-kick. The French team went all the way in their protests, they launched appeal after appeal, unsuccessfully. The return leg was a cagey match but Larsson's quality header smoothed our progress.
United v Roma
Oh, a classic. United were confident in the opening 30 minutes of the first leg but comfortably controlling the game is not their style: Scholes got himself sent off so we braced ourselves for a bombardment. It looked like the Reds had withstood it but then Roma scored a lucky goal and our task was uphill. Rooney found the net in beautiful fashion but the Italians struck lucky again to take advantage to the return leg.
And the second leg... unbelievable. I don't think anyone who reads this article forgot that game. United were slick, fast and lethal - they humiliated a previously confident team.
United v Milan
We orchestrated our downfall. United were up inside five minutes and were in total control at Old Trafford: Carrick missed another great chance and Milan looked painfully out of their depth. Then two insane defensive mistakes allowed the Italians to turn the game on its head. United recovered and showed their superiority by grabbing a win but their task was always going to be monumental after Milan had scored two away goals.
Yet we still could have gone through. Yesterday's final has shown that Milan are quite mediocre when they are denied space. They were in form against us, no doubt but once again, stupid, utterly stupid mistakes at the back helped them and our players had not pressed and harassed them as vigorously as Liverpool did last night. If we had the energy to exert physical pressure on them, we would have gone through. Our tiredness meant they eased their way into the final.
There are plenty of positives in this campaign. We got to the semi-finals. Rooney has come of age in Europe, too so we might expect some blistering displays from him in the elite competition. United produced the greatest performance of this season's Champions League and we played the most thrilling match, too.
But of course the negatives must not be forgotten. Our away form is terrible. We won at Benfica and Lille but did not play well and lost four away matches in the competition, scoring only one goal. That's something Fergie should adress. I think that since Keano's decline and then departure, United are not organised enough. European football is about teams who are very organised, very solid and defensively massive. No surprise that Barcelona and Arsenal got to the final by sacrificing their belief in attacking football. No doubt that Milan, Liverpool and Chelsea seem to be very effective in the Champions League.
Teams of flair, verve and creativity must sacricifice their fundamental principles if they are to achieve success in Europe. Particularly away from home - our Old Trafford form has been great, scoring at least three goals in each game. What we must learn is to be disciplined in defence and concentrate from the first minute to the last. Owen Hargreaves will be a great addition for another bid to win the Champions League. Or at least I hope so.
Date:Thursday May 24 2007
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