Five years ago I think I would have cried at the final whistle on Wednesday. Beating Milan at the San Siro was incredible enough but to go on to beat them 4-0 at Old Trafford was out of this world. The fact that I was just really happy though, sharing in the happiness of David Beckham wearing the scarf and Real Madrid getting knocked out of Europe brought us, was a reminder of how fortunate we’ve been over the past few years. I was buzzing off the result and anti-Glazer protests but I wasn’t delirious.
After winning the league again in 2007 I promised myself I would appreciate every single great moment from here on in. I wouldn’t allow myself to become complacent like I had in the 90’s. Every big win, every trophy and every title would be appreciated as though it was the last.
But when you win three titles in a row, with a European Cup, World Club Cup and two League Cups along the way, you find yourself expecting the big wins, expecting the glory and expecting the trophies.
So, let’s just take a moment to get this in to perspective. We just beat AC Milan four ficking nil. However highly we rate ourselves, however much we may fancy ourselves in Europe, whatever your opinion may be of Manchester United, Milan are massive, and only Real Madrid have won more European Cups than them. Their squad is littered with household names in football, with Ronaldinho, David Beckham, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Nesta amongst the superstars that wear their shirt.
It was a brilliant result and like our victory over Barcelona a couple of years earlier, this shows just how far we’ve come in Europe. Will we be in Madrid in a few months time? Who knows. But success in the Champions League has become a possible, even probable, scenario us these days and that was epitomised on Wednesday.
We knew an early goal would put us in a great position so after seeing Wayne Rooney go narrowly wide a few minutes in after Antonio Valencia played him in, it was great to see him bury Gary Neville’s cross 13 minutes in. Neville had a crack himself not long before, striking the ball well with his left peg and seeing it fly narrowly over the bar. His cross was inch perfect though and allowed Rooney to score his seventh consecutive header.
Milan had their chances before half time, with Nani accidentally flicking the ball on to Ronaldinho, only for him to head just wide, before Pirlo struck from distance and Edwin Van der Sar failed to gather first time, which was reminiscent of the ways we conceded against Milan in 2005 with Roy Carroll and Tim Howard in goal.
We got to half-time with the scoreline at 1-0 and we looked good for the win, but it was almost as soon as the second half started that the result looked wrapped up.
Nani won the ball in our half of the pitch and raced forward. Under pressure from his opponent, his used his outstep to play the ball forward to Rooney, which curled perfectly in to his path. The goalkeeper, who had been the source of much amusement all evening, looking like an overweight referee who kicked the ball like a girl and punched the ball with limp wrists, correctly came off his line but he couldn’t reach the ball before Rooney. He grabbed his fourth goal of the tie by calmly slotting the ball past the sprawling keeper.
On the hour mark, Park Ji-Sung grabbed his second goal of the tie, with him emerging as an important player for us this season, to book our place in the quarter-finals. Paul Scholes got in on the action, playing the ball in to Park who let is roll across him before finding the bottom corner from a tight angle.
Minutes later, the moment the press had been focussed on arrived, with David Beckham coming off the bench. It was almost cruel to bring him on now, with the game obviously too far beyond Milan and Becks knowing there was little he could do about that in the last 25 minutes. He was given a standing ovation (as is every substitution and every return of a former well-liked player) and the crowd bellowed “there’s only one David Beckham”. This is by no means a unique chant, but Beckham’s place in world football certainly is. I can’t imagine even Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, despite many naming him as the best in the world, would have created as much publicity. Now all we needed was a freekick just outside our box to have the press wetting themselves.
Beckham’s first few touches were greeted with light-hearted boos, which I’m sure were fairly confusing for the Italians who had just witnessed probably the best received substitution of all time.
Not long after coming on, Beckham volleyed the ball with great power from outside the box, with Van der Sar somehow managing to get his fists to it before the ball took his teeth out. Becks continued to run about and look busy, but he knew it was wasted effort, as did his team mates, who didn’t bother to share his enthusiasm.
To make the humiliation complete, Park did well to keep the ball before Rafael delivered a one-touch cross to Darren Fletcher, who for some reason was waiting alone at the back post. Ol’ tubby in goal spread himself but Fletch carefully directed the ball in to the back of the net.
At this point, you had to think the night couldn’t get any better, but it did. As Becks milked the crowd, saying his last goodbye to the fans that carried him through the dark moments following the 1998 World Cup and cheered for every trophy he helped us lift, a fan threw their green and gold scarf on to the pitch. The anti-Glazer songs had been in full voice since we had gone 2-0 up, with a carefully planned operation allowing two massive LUHG banners to be dropped from the Stretford End and stewards having no way of getting to them. But Beckham’s decision to wrap the scarf around his neck was the climax to this. Our eager eyes watched him approach the scarf and massive cheers were heard from all around the ground as he put it on.
Then it was confirmed that Real Madrid had been knocked out of the Champions League by Lyon, meaning Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t get to complete his dream season with his “dream club” by lifting the European Cup at the Bernabeu this season. No offence to Ronnie, I am actually pretty fond of the lad now and am happy to think of him the way I did in 07-08, but of course it’s nice for us to think of him watching us thrash a European giant on the night his “dream club” crashed out at the hands of the 4th best side in France.
Regardless, our manager has called for calm, which is advice the dressing room has already seemingly taken on board. It’s great to be through the next round but the league always has to be our priority, which is why we need to have our heads straight for Fulham on Sunday.
Arsenal and Chelsea play later today and whilst we can hope for dropped points, we need to ensure that we keep doing our job. The pressure is on for these three clubs to win every game from now until the end of the season, so we need to ensure we don’t buckle.
Fulham have a fairly good record against us at their place, but they haven’t beaten us at Old Trafford since 2003. We have won all of the six games played between us at home since then, including the brilliant 5-1 win on the opening day of the 06-07 season as well as the 3-0 win last February which saw us go five points clear at the top.
They have had a pretty good season so far but this is based on their home form, which has seen them win 9 of the 14 games played there. Away from home, they have won just 1 out of 14, which obviously puts us in a very favourable position.
Bobby Zamora hit some good form for them last month, scoring some great goals and managing four in a row. But he’s gone another four games without scoring whilst Fulham have gone that time without winning either.
We’re fortunate that we could play within ourselves on Wednesday, meaning tiredness shouldn’t be much of a problem. Michael Carrick can return in place of Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov can share the work up front with Rooney. Park may be the one to lose his place, because of his brilliant work rate which may be hard to sustain, with Nani and Valencia taking place on the wings. Nani failed to engage brain too often on Wednesday, but did play a crucial part in the game when delivering the perfect ball for Rooney’s second, and maybe that’s how performances should be measured? On what you do contribute rather than what you don’t? I don’t know. It would be great to see him replicate the form before his red card at Aston Villa but we have to understand that is more difficult for him from the left wing.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic should get another game together under their belts, Patrice Evra will play in his 30th Premiership game of the reason, and I imagine Rafael will start at right back.
Every game is must win until the two teams near us slip up and we have to be confident our lads have what it takes to get the three points against Fulham tomorrow.