Just over a year ago, Nani scored his second goal of the game to put United 3-0 up against Bayern Munich. After Nani’s improved form, I remember thinking how nice it was that he would get the credit for putting us in yet another European Cup semi-final. We had given ourselves a lot to do in the first leg, after leading 1-0 until the 75th minute before conceding two late goals, so I was made up we had shown the strength to come back and blow our opposition away.
Then just before half-time, Michael Carrick was covering at the back in the centre of defence alongside Rio Ferdinand after a quick break from Bayern. Olic made him look a fool, outmuscling him with ease, before slotting the ball in the far corner. Honestly, at 3-0, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that we couldn’t get to the semis. It was awful timing to concede and whilst I was still confident, I wasn’t half as cocky as I had been.
Less than five minutes after the restart, Rafael showed his inexperience and got a second yellow for a stupid and needless shirt pull. Having been booked earlier he was in no position to be doing such a thing. It wasn’t as though Ribery was leading a break, as United had plenty of players back, so what was he thinking about? I was furious. The crowd applauded him off the pitch but I was in no mood for that. There was no way we were going to keep Bayern out for over 40 minutes with ten men and momentum with them. With 15 minutes to go, United switched off for a Bayern corner, leaving Arjen Robben unmarked on the edge of the penalty area. He hit the ball so sweetly and that was United out of the European Cup on away goals.
After our brilliant display away to Schalke this season and 2-0 lead, it was hard to try and think sensibly at the final whistle. Surely we were going to book our place in a third Champions League final in four years. We were so much better than them and it could have 10-0. That’s not being smug, we really were that much better than them.
At 3-0 up it was plain sailing last season but you can never predict what is going to happen. One or two individual errors can make all the difference, so whilst I’m very confident ahead of our game tonight, it is mindful to remember we do have 90 minutes to play before we could say we’re going to the final.
It is for that reason I’m slightly nervous about the team selection, given that Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed he will be resting players today ahead of the Chelsea game. I understand the reasons for that and I completely agree. Even without our comfortable position in the Champions League, I’d argue that Sunday has to be the priority. Winning the 19th title is more important than booking our place in a final against Barcelona. That doesn’t mean I’m not aprehensive about the line-up we might see.
The manager said after the first leg that Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen will play tonight. I do wonder whether both will be on from the off or whether Fergie will want to take the cautious approach of a lone striker. He should have learnt his lesson from the City game but who knows. Wayne Rooney maybe injured, but if fit, I’d want to see both him and Chicharito on the bench. Whilst Schalke didn’t have much to offer in the first leg in stopping our attacks, Manuel Neuer played out of his skin and I wouldn’t expect anything different tonight.
Paul Scholes will start and you would like to think he would be the experienced head out there but who knows these days. It will be good to see him linking up with our strikers though, as well as spraying balls out wide, and his contribution can’t be underestimated. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Nani start tonight, with his declining form making Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia favourites to start on Sunday. Will Gibson start? Anderson? Maybe Fergie will give Giggs a start but make him the first sub when hopefully the game is wrapped up. Darren Fletcher should also play a part after being sidelined with a flu, and the weight loss that came with that, since the Liverpool game on the first weekend of March.
Rio Ferdinand will probably be rested, given how injury prone he is these days, with O’Shea giving Patrice Evra a rest at left back and Rafael hopefully returning to right-back. There has been some whispers of Tomasz Kuszczak starting ahead of Edwin Van der Sar too. But whatever the line-up, we should have enough to get a result tonight.
“We live in exciting times,” said Fergie in tonight’s programme notes. This week could be the worst in years but it could also be the best. It’s an agony waiting for these big games ahead but I would much rather have the buzzing/sick feeling then have nothing to hope for, like so many other fans. Win, lose or draw, we’re fortunate to be fans of this great football club, but I really do fancy us to do the business tonight. Come on United!