By Ollie Jackson
There have been many magical European nights at Old Trafford but few compare with this one from back in 2007. A potent Manchester United decimated a shell shocked Roma on an evening when everything Rooney, Ronaldo et al tried seemed to end up in the back of the net. You can follow Ollie on Twitter @myfootballblog and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.
‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’. For those of you not familiar with the club from the Eternal City, AS Roma are a football team who pride themselves on adhering to the aforementioned expression, which when translated, reads as follows; Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved. Upon interpretation, this is a statement that is designed to ensure that even the most ardent of supporters do not lose faith in their beloved side. For Roma’s Italian supporters remaining devoted is an important quality to possess and no more so than on the 10th April 2007 when the then Roma manger, Luciano Spalletti and his side travelled to Old Trafford, buoyant after conquering the English giants just one week earlier at the Stadio Olympico, in their Champions League quarter final tie.
The highly charged first leg meeting between Roma and Manchester United was witnessed by a capacity crowd of 77,000, who saw their team put two past Sir Alex Ferguson’s men courtesy of Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vucinic. Wayne Rooney’s priceless away goal helped ensure the tie remained alive for the second leg which would not involve Paul Scholes after the accomplished midfielder saw red in Rome for two rash tackles.
Despite returning to Manchester defeated, United remained defiant that they could overturn the one goal deficit and secure a place in the Champions League Semi Final.
Frequent visitors to Old Trafford will know that on a European night under the floodlights, the atmosphere can be so intense, so exhilarating, so emotionally overwhelming that any sign of weakness from the traveling opponents, will be quickly exposed. The United faithful are capable of producing an atmosphere so intimidating that even the most hardened of professionals can quickly be engulfed by the unrepentant waves of vocal support that time and time again inspires the home side to victory.
Prior to the second leg tie on April the 10th 2007, Roma’s notorious supporters clashed with Manchester United fans outside of Old Trafford. It is fair to say that Roma’s fans are not the most popular amongst English supporters, just ask Arsenal, Liverpool and even Middlesborough fans who have all been targeted by Roma’s Ultras, a well known group of fans intent on causing disruption be it through violence, racist propaganda or political ideologies.
Despite the rising animosity between Manchester United and AS Roma fans prior to kick off, the unrest only served to spur the home support on in a bid to extinguish any confidence that the Italian club might hold heading into the game.
As a devoted Manchester United season ticket holder, I travelled to the game with a great deal of anticipation, knowing that I along with 70,000 home supporters would be needed in order to inspire the team. So, with my scarf in hand I took my seat in the North Stand and unbeknown to me at that moment, I was about to witness one of the finest English displays in Europe.
Knowing that an early goal would unsettle Spaelletti’s side, United began with such intent that many were struggling to keep pace with the action. Much maligned midfielder Michael Carrick opened his Champions League account, scoring with a stunning effort after taking up possession following Cristiano Ronaldo’s infield pass. Upon scoring the first goal there was a real sense of belief amongst the capacity crowd that United would overcome the Italian side. So when Gabriel Heinze proceeded to slip the ball to the feet of Ryan Giggs who in turn produced a wonderfully lofted first time cross to Alan Smith who slotted in United’s second of the game, Old Trafford was in raptures, the sound of unparalleled joy echoed around the stadium. “Magical Manchester United” were the words used by ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley as Wayne Rooney made it 3-0 inside 20 minutes. Safe in the knowledge that his side were going to progress, Sir Alex Ferguson looked on as his side scored another four goals. Ronaldo followed Rooney’s effort with two goals either side of half time, the first of which was a sublime solo effort that beat the helpless Doni at his near post. His second of the game came courtesy of Ryan Giggs who played a magnificent ball that alluded the Roma defence and allowed Ronaldo to secure United’s fifth. Manchester United’s sixth goal was scored by Carrick who surpassed his earlier effort with a quite incredible strike from a distance.
Not even a 69th minute goal from Roma talisman Daniele De Rossi could spare the Italians a humiliating night at the hands of the Red Devils. As if to add insult to injury, Patrice Evra, not known for his goal scoring prowess completed the rout and made it Manchester United 7-1 AS Roma.
On a night whereby Europe’s elite looked on in awe as Manchester United demolished any lingering integrity that the unpopular club once held, attention quickly turned to how in just 90 minutes Ferguson’s side had all but erased the reputation of Serie A. Despite failing to progress to the final after being defeated by AC Milan in the semi final, there was growing confidence around the club that United would soon add to the two European Cups previously acquired in 1968 and 1999. That expectation has been proven right as currently, United are in pole position to compete in their third Champions League final in just four years, after claiming the prestigious crown in 2008, one year on from their captivating performance against Roma at Old Trafford.
I leave you with this, and it is in reference to my opening sentence. ‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’ – On that memorable night in Manchester, United single handedly nullified any lasting significance behind Roma’s cherished motto. It is easy to love a football club, but it is nigh on impossible to not question the ability of your side after suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of one of the most successful domestic clubs to have ever of graced the European stage.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.
By Callum O”Toole
This one will probably be the most recent game featured in the series but it’s likely that it’ll be talked about for years and Callum was fortunate enough to be there. One of if not the greatest club side of all time were taking on a Real Madrid side swamped with talent. Featuring were a dozen World Cup winners , the winners of the previous two World Player of the Year awards and the world’s most expensive player. Then there was the added factor of one Jose Mourinho. But it was Barcelona who lived up to the hype. You can follow Callum on Twitter @cotoole17 and read more of his articles on Bleacher Report.
Drama or excellence? Sport throws up many questions like this, not least in its modern form where administrators and organisers frequently refer to matches as “entertainment”. Contrary to popular belief, sport is not a part of the entertainment industry. Sportsmen should not aspire to be entertainers, but to achieve the ultimate expression of their event – to be the incarnation of greatness for their sport. If this can be done in a dramatic fashion, like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal so often achieve, then it is an added bonus. Yet, often, to achieve so highly necessitates the suspension of drama, as opponents are swept aside in a predictable, almost inevitable fashion.
I was fortunate enough to have been present in the Nou Camp on Monday, 29th November 2010, when Barcelona gave, arguably, the most complete single performance in the history of football, in El Gran Clasico against their great rivals Real Madrid. While there have been more significant performances before, notably Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Final and AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, these are set in the context of their achievements. Both these sides played brilliantly, and the performances were greater in that they won trophies as a result. But in terms of the highest expression of their sport, they fell just short. What Barcelona provided was a near flawless display of footballing prowess in the biggest club game in the world.
Prior to the game the excitement was tangible, and it was being billed as the greatest club game in history. Twelve world cup winners were to make an appearance as were the previous two winners of the Ballon d’Or (and the winner before that, Kaka, only missed out through injury). The clash between the two dominant sides in Spain often decides the title, so there was also a significant prize to be had. A tight, unpredictable affair was expected. What we got was a sumptuous showcase of footballing prowess from Barcelona, who demolished their rivals 5-0 in front of an ecstatic Camp Nou faithful.
It was not just the margin of victory which shocked that night, but the way the Catalans set about their task. There have been big wins in El Clasico before – two seasons ago Barca scored six in the Bernabeu on their way to a 19th La Liga title, while Real had a 4-1 victory in the May 2008 fixture. What was striking was how Barcelona made their opponents submit to the inevitability of defeat by keeping possession and forcing Madrid to chase shadows.
Barcelona’s style is a subtle mix of fast-paced possession football when attacking, and a highly organised pressing game when without the ball. The two often complement each other beautifully, and they were used to devastating effect as Real were penned back in their own half for long periods. The Madrid attacking threat was virtually non-existent, with Cristiano Ronaldo starved of service and brilliantly shackled by Carles Puyol. Until his half-time substitution most in the stadium were unaware of Karim Benzema’s presence on the pitch.
Barcelona had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. They weaved, they shimmied, they toyed. Xavi Hernandez was metronomic with his passing, Lionel Messi balletic with his runs and David Villa lethal in scoring a brace. But the game was about far more than mere individuals. Barcelona’s enchanting display was as close to perfection as team sport can be and it may influence the way the game is played in the future.
The performance, and the success of Barcelona and the Spanish national side in recent seasons, has shifted the balance of football heavily in favour of the technicians. For the last few seasons, many sides have attempted to compensate for a lack of skill and guile with physical power. But Barca’s dedication to their traditions has made other clubs take note of the benefits from youth development and attacking football.
Barcelona’s artistry and invention are means to an end. They are not the end in itself, just what the club regard as the most reliable and effective way of achieving victory. Without the success they would be dismissed as “lightweight” as their imitators at Arsenal so often are. Yet results like that against Madrid help to shape the views of a generation. No one watching could deny Barcelona’s prowess and dominance of the game, yet they also thrilled with their mesmeric patterns.
So, while it was not dramatic in the sense of being a one sided game, Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid was exciting nonetheless as it could, perhaps, have heralded a revolution in how the game is played for the next decade.
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.
“To be mature means to face, and not evade, every fresh crisis that comes”
Ten months ago it seemed Nani’s days at Manchester United were numbered. His performances were sporadic and his great potential remained largely untapped. Publically criticising Sir Alex Ferguson should have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It appeared that Nani was harbouring for a move in January but Ferguson had other ideas. Presumably Ferguson traded the hairdryer in and elected to place a shoulder around Nani’s slumped shoulders because his form soon picked up.
In fact, he excelled in the latter stages of the last campaign. From totally destroying Gaël Clichy at the Emirates, he then notched a brace against Bayern Munich before scoring with a sumptuous chip against Spurs. In 2010, the proverbial penny appeared to have dropped for Nani; few could have seen the turnaround coming.
12 months ago, United fans hoped the blow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure would be softened by his fellow Portuguese winger. Nani is rightly keen to establish his own identity but it seems his career is destined to be tenuously linked to Ronaldo’s. By treading a similar path, throwing in multiple stepovers and using copious amounts of hair gel, Nani is emulating Ronaldo in many ways. But whilst Ronaldo evolved the predatory instincts of a striker, Nani has been finely honing his skills as a more creative winger.
In attempting to break free from the “poor-man’s Ronaldo” tag he was lumbered with, Nani needed to grow as both a player and a person. If anyone had any doubt of Nani’s maturation, they were soon silenced in the past few weeks.
It was Nani who shouldered much of the blame for the dropped points at Craven Cottage. After his missed penalty late in the game (which was ironically reminiscent of Ronaldo in its execution), Fulham grabbed an unlikely point from the jaws of defeat. The Nani of old, the one who made those ill-thought-out comments back in November, may have caved in and let it drain his confidence. Ferguson himself may have even been reluctant to pick him. But since then he turned in a man of the match performance against West Ham in the next game and followed that with a two-assist showing at Everton.
There may have been a time in the embryonic stages of his career at Old Trafford when traits such as selfishness and petulance would have defined him. But there has been an acceptance of the collective importance of a team now. Consider his celebration against West Ham as an example. Rather than resort to his trademark flip, he embraced his teammates pointing to Wayne Rooney to show his appreciation. Whilst the acrobatics display Nani’s athleticism, his reluctance to take to the air showcased a realisation. By sacrificing personal posturing for the communal embrace, Nani is discovering that it is the team which must take precedence.
In interviews too, a more mature tone has been added to his boyish vocals. He is preaching from experience when he speaks of the advice he has give Bebé:
“Sometimes you try to show everything at first and things don’t go quite right. It is important to try and keep things simple, get your confidence up, and then show your quality.”
With the furore surrounding Bebé it is uplifting to see Nani take his fellow countrymen under his wing. Nani himself knows the transition to English football is difficult and his willingness to tutor Bebé can only help the newcomer.
Meanwhile on the pitch, Nani’s bright start to the season will need to continue if United are to challenge for honours this season. With Antonio Valencia now unfortunately side-lined for a lengthy spell, Nani has the chance to shine in his favoured right-wing position. One year ago, when he was asked to step up in the absence of another he appeared to buckle under the pressure, but this is a new, more focused Nani. Now he is more likely to seize the initiative, to revel in the increased role.
The team is currently over-reliant on its elder statesmen and the future so ominously hinges on the development of its raw talent. But Nani is one of the few bridging the gap. At 23, he has plenty of time to establish himself as one of the game’s most potent attacking players. At 23, he can also aid the development of the younger players still finding their feet in England. The maturation of Nani has begun.
“Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if they are done by nice people like ourselves”
Every now and again, Sir Alex Ferguson will come out with a piece of pure hypocrisy which surprises me. Usually it will involve the F.A. or referees. This time, it involves transfer fees, wages and the new lofty heights they continue to reach:
“The enormous amounts of money that are paid, not just the transfer fees, but for salaries; I don’t think it rests easy with supporters.”
This truthful titbit comes from the Manchester United boss who has smashed the British transfer fee for Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. Add in Wayne Rooney, the world’s most expensive teenager at the time and Dimitar Berbatov, who would be Britain’s most expensive player were it not for Robinho. Last January, Ferguson agreed to pay Fulham £10 million for Chris Smalling who had only made three Premier League appearances at the time of the transfer. Moreover, the biggest winners of inflated prices were the club who profited from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player. That club and the beneficiaries of £80 million were Manchester United.
Ferguson isn’t in a position to complain about escalating fees. More than any other manager in the Premier League era, he has raised the bar for transfer fees and wages. But now with Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid all able to freely spend, Ferguson claims he has been “hamstrung” by the competitive market. What the Scot is experiencing now is a taste of his own brutal medicine. The rest of the Premier League have been continually frustrated when United have ramped up the prices. Roles haven’t entirely reversed but Ferguson certainly feels belittled by City in particular.
Even in a World Cup year, there is a good value to be found in this transfer market. Joe Cole, held in high regard by Ferguson as a teenager, was available on a free. Germany’s young World Cup stars Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira were available on the cheap as both had only one year left on their deals. Khedira may well have rebuffed any approaches from England as soon as Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid threw their hat into the ring. But Özil’s name continues to be linked with a plethora of European giants and the playmaker, who tormented England at the World Cup, is reportedly available at somewhere between £10-£15 million. United need a goal-scoring, creative midfielder along with a dominant holding player and all three of these players would fill voids in Ferguson’s team without breaking the bank. Wesley Sneijder has been linked with a move to Old Trafford but he was superb value 12 months ago and Ferguson missed out. There is a real danger that in a year’s time, Özil could be the next one that got away.
If you can’t keep up with the market, you have to be happy with what you’ve got. This is where Ferguson, an expert at handling the media, comes into his own. He claims he is very happy with his young charges. It would be wrong to question Ferguson’s faith in youth. Nobody has dared attempt to do so since Alan Hansen scoffed humble pie back in 1996. If nothing else, we know these players will have a winning mentality drummed into them. But will this next batch of youngsters reach the same heights as the class of 1992? There have been flashes of brilliance from Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan, Fabio et al, but replacing club legends like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville is a tall order.
Perhaps Ferguson has been stung by his last acquisition to carry a large price tag. I remain a big fan of Dimitar Berbatov but he was grossly over-priced at £30 million particularly considering his age. Perhaps, as most fans believe, Ferguson’s hands are tied by the heavy debts that the Glazer family have burdened the club with. Perhaps Ferguson hides behind the ‘no value in the market’ line to protect his employers. It is a theory which Ferguson frequently rejects much to the fans’ dismay.
Whatever the case, Ferguson’s criticism of inflated transfer fees is hypocritical. He is right to insist that fans are dismayed at transfer fees and wages but this phoney empathy has never stopped him breaking the bank beforehand.