I have been lucky enough to be at a few great European nights at Old Trafford, and last season’s trouncing of Roma will remain with me like it will everyone else whether they were in the stadium that night or not. It seems to be often the case that the most progress in this competition is made with performances a lot less spectacular than that.
That brings us nicely to Barcelona. The first leg at the Camp Nou was excruciating and I was only at home for that one, I said to myself then that it would be hell to be watching a game like this. To the untrained eye it looked like it was their attack against our defence, the more we repelled the more they came forward and the more Messi looked like he had applied glue to his boots before kick off.
Last week at Old Trafford the atmosphere was as loud as you would expect, the hairs on the hairs on the back of my neck were up and the Stone Roses have never sounded better, mostly because they had mixed in audio from commentary on that night against Bayern Munich. It was all there, the latest great European night since the last great European night.
That might be a line used more for the reds from Liverpool rather than ours, we’re always reminded that Liverpool are something special in this competition and lest we forget their participation in the self proclaimed greatest European final ever in Istanbul. Manchester United have their own memorable European nights yet they are restricted to a glorious quarter final or even beautiful disaster against Porto as they went on to create their own history. You have to hand it to us, when we have made it to the final we haven’t bothered with the losing much. Two finals in the European Cup is not good enough for our club but we have made history on both previous occasions. Drawing level in forty five minutes and winning on penalties, or two goals in two minutes to win the game and the historic treble… I know which one I prefer.
If we were going to extend our run in this season’s competition we would need world class performances from each of our players, and throat ripping support from the fans in the stadium, but for the moments before kick off I just sat there and looked straight ahead at the Stretford End. I listened to the commentary and remembering the memories. We were ninety minutes away from either success or another round of glorious failure, and there was a stadium full of fans that had had enough of brave defeat.
I don’t know if you actually enjoy a game like the one we saw on Tuesday, at least, I’m not sure I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the heroic performances of Rio Ferdinand and Wesley Brown, I enjoyed the fact that our boys turned up when they needed to. I was right behind Paul Scholes’ goal and saw every slight curve it made from his boot to just beyond the keeper’s fingers and the sound it made when it kissed the net. I certainly enjoyed that but we all knew that what would follow that goal would be minutes upon minutes of nerve wracking Barcelona pressure, and I hated every minute of that. I’m sure I’m missing out moments of United attack when we could have made the game safe, frankly they are secondary to the feelings I had watching Lionel Messi attack us and evade our defenders, that boy surely is a great player and I had every sympathy for Patrice Evra on that night.
He was one of ours that was singled out for having a less than brilliant game. If, on your worst game for the football club you are beaten all ends up by one of the greatest players in the world and still end up on the winning team, that is fine by me. Evra’s biggest crime being left for dead by Messi, but personal victories elsewhere made up for that.
Towards the end I really didn’t care who got the ball clear of our defence, only that they kept the ball as far away from the danger area as they could. I would like to sit here and write of how I knew that Barcelona were never going to make the breakthrough, that it just felt like our night. It didn’t. It was hell. It wasn’t like I doubted our boys and their ability to pass the defensive test, I just wanted there to be fewer questions in the exam because the more Barcelona asked, the greater the chance they would steal our glory and they only needed one right answer.
I completely lost my voice, I was screaming at everyone. I was praying to Eric and I was booing Thierry Henry just like everyone else was. I booed him even before he made it onto the pitch, because there was a moment when we cleared the ball out for a Barcelona throw and he was nice enough to be on the spot warming up, he instantly returned the ball to his colleague for the quickest throw in ever.
He has the rest of the season on the bench to sit and think about the difference he could have made to their game that night; he has all the time in the world to think about that header he sent straight to our ‘keeper. We have two weeks to think about what we achieved and how we achieved it, of course the achievement will mean more if we go all the way to Moscow and win that ruddy great big trophy.
You can keep your greatest games, much as it pains me you can have your Roma result back. Results like that are followed by many examples of close but no cigar. I loved that game and yet I can admit that it means less in context because we eventually missed out. Glorious games are great in isolation, more often than not success is made with results like Tuesday night.
I hated the game because I took every forward attack personally and watched the team give everything to the cause. The game was agony, the result was heaven. It is in the pure hell of the hardest fought one nil game, not the heaven of a dominating victory that you truly earn your rewards.
We can play better. We will play better but maybe that’s not the point. We have played better and we have still missed out. We didn’t miss out this time, we played the way we needed to and the way we were made to for a large part of the game and we got our reward.
Victory in Europe takes us to Moscow and that is where it all begins again. Manchester United, European Cup Finalists again. Now to clinch the Premiership.