Manchester United achieved something this season that once felt impossible. There were 59 years between our first title and our seventh and just 18 years between our eight and our nineteenth. What Sir Alex Ferguson has done with this club will never be matched by any manager, at any club, ever.
Yet for all the trophies we’ve won, at home and abroad, the manager will always regret our success on the continent hasn’t matched the quality of the teams he’s created. That double winning team of 1994 was superb but they were hampered by the foreigner rule, meaning we had to play just three from Schmeichel, Irwin, Keane, Kanchelskis and Cantona.
Then there have been the years since when we should have won it, or at least should have got ourselves in to the final so we had a good chance of winning it. How did we manage to lose 1-0 to the third best team in Germany, Borussia Dortmund, in the 1997 semi-final? Why couldn’t we finish off the third best team in France, Monaco, to stop them knocking us out on away goals in the 1998 quarter-final? After holding Real Madrid to a 0-0 draw in the away leg of the quarter-final in 2000, we lost to them at Old Trafford. Out on away goals again in 2002 against Bayer Leverkusen after failing to kill them off in both games. We were robbed against Jose Mourinho’s Porto in 2004 when Paul Scholes’ goal was wrongly ruled out for offside. You’d like to think we could have gone on to beat Deportivo and Monaco to be named champions that year, but then again, who the fuck knows. Then, most recently, the final of 2009, which our lads just didn’t show up for. In the history of the competition as the Champions League, dating back to the 92-93 season, United have played more games than any other club; 12 more games than Real Madrid, 17 more than Barca, 26 more than Bayern Munich, 36 more than Milan and 93 more than Liverpool. Yet our trophy haul doesn’t match that.
There have been plenty of ‘if only’s’ in the Fergie years in Europe and now that we find ourselves in the third final in four years, you have to hope we don’t have another to add to the list. We have to be mindful that the manager can’t go on forever and chances like this don’t necessarily come around too often. Even ten years in to Fergie’s reign, our club had played in just one European Cup final in its entire history. An English club has played in the final just seventeen times since the competition began in 1955. We may have been there more often than most recently but we should never underestimate how precious an opportunity it is just to be there, just to be able to compete on the day, in a one off match.
Unfortunately, the team standing between us and our fourth European Cup is one of the best teams, ever. Annoying. This doesn’t make our task impossible, but it does make it more difficult than the Leverkusen, Porto and and Monaco days.
This current side was dubbed the worst United side in years at the beginning of the season. After winning the league by nine points, the critics have backed off a little, but that doesn’t put us close to Barcelona, in terms of their ability and style of football. Fortunately, we do have some things on our side.
Losing against Barca in 2009 hurt our players. It wasn’t just the losing, it was the not giving a good account of themselves. Following our early missed opportunities, we were never in the game and the press that followed, talking about us being battered and played off the pitch, will upset and embarrass them. That will give us extra fight. That desire to put things right will make us work that bit harder. Will that be enough to match us up with Barcelona? Who knows, but it’s a motivation they don’t have.
Something else in our favour is the manager’s desire to put right the wrongs of 2009. He will have run that game through his head a million times since then, eager for a chance to make amends, and will hardly believe his luck that he’s been presented with such an opportunity. His preparation will have been meticulous and I expect our tactics to be spot on. Again, we’ll have to wait and see whether this is enough for us to match Barca, but it’s a desire they don’t have.
For weeks I’ve been imagining the feeling of seeing the ball hit the back of the net. I’ve imagined that feeling of seeing our lads celebrating on the pitch. I’m imagined the general madness and psychotic behaviour which follows winning the European Cup. It makes my stomach flip over and it’s torture. You can try and put these thoughts out of your head, nod and agree when people say Barca will batter us, but what you’ve imagined is still there, eating away at you, tempting you to think about it, and it’s unbearable.
Nineteen was the priority this season, that was what we wanted to achieve. To win the European Cup on top of that would be ridiculous. But how many ridiculous moments have we experienced as supporters of this great club? How many games have we won in a way you would roll your eyes at if you saw it in a film? To win the double this season would be mad but mad is what we seem to do best.
So, come on United, do us proud, and let’s bring the European Cup back to Manchester again.
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