I read an interview with Darren Fletcher earlier in the season where he claimed that as the lads celebrated in Moscow, before the trophy had even been awarded, Ryan Giggs had them in a huddle. “Lads, this is what it’s all about,” he said, “let’s have it next year as well!”
Giggsy had just broken Sir Bobby Charlton’s appearances record for the club as well as scoring the final penalty for United in sudden death to win us our third, and his second, European Cup. He didn’t have time to think about that though because already he was thinking about what they could win next.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would be making the final again this year though, even if Giggsy did.
We were handed the toughest of our possible draws in the first knock-out round, facing Italian Champions, Inter Milan. I couldn’t stand the idea of losing to Jose Mourinho. If we were to get knocked out by a team better than us, fair enough, but I couldn’t tolerate the thought of Mourinho filling our rags with talk of him getting the better of Ferguson.
Mourinho reckoned we would defend when we went out to the San Siro but when it came down to it, Inter were pinned back whilst we attacked them and dominated the game. However, with a 0-0 draw, we were inviting TNSSO to repeat his touchline dance after scoring a late, away goal to clinch progression.
Fortunately, it was more of the same in the second leg. Whilst Inter played better than they had at home, Ibrahimovic went missing and that fat waste of space Adriano had nothing to offer. Nemanja Vidic opened the scoring for United on four minutes before Ronaldo sealed up the victory four minutes in to the second half.
We were handed a kinder draw in the quarter-finals, although we didn’t half make it hard for ourselves, conceding two away goals before having to travel to Porto. A blinding goal from Cristiano Ronaldo, the best he’s scored for us, was the difference between the teams though.
After dominating Arsenal in the first leg of the quarter-finals, Arsene Wenger said we would regret not scoring more than one goal. John O’Shea scored that and celebrated with his usual “did I really just do that?!” expression. Nobody could have predicted what would happen at the Emirates though.
We knew we needed an early goal. For all their ‘beautiful football’, it’s obvious they don’t have any bottle, and certainly don’t have the experience. An early goal for us would mean they had to score three goals to go through and there was no way they would be able to overcome that mental battle. So when Park Ji-Sung scored on eight minutes the feeling that we really would be in the final again started to overwhelm me. When Ronaldo made it 2-0 four minutes later, our final spot was booked. To make it 3-0 in the second half was just utter humiliated for the Gooners and I fucking loved it!
However, the Darren Fletcher red card really took the shine off the whole occasion. He’s enjoyed a brilliant season with the club, really establishing himself as someone most reds are relieved to see starting. The transformation in him as a player and of the fans’ opinion is incredible and a starting place in the final, filling the void of Owen Hargreaves, would have been a justified reward for the Scot.
His suspension makes our team selection for this evening more difficult. A midfield of Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs and Park, with Rooney and Ronaldo up front, would have given us enough defensive guile as well as the attacking strength and flair. Chances are we will start with a 433 formation and Anderson will get Fletcher’s place. Whilst Anderson is a popular player, his form this season has been nothing like last, and his inclusion could be genius or disaster. It really is hit or miss.
Ronaldo thrived against Arsenal in that more forward position, a role he should be in far more often, given his ability to finish. That is where he has to play this evening, with Rooney supporting from the left, Park supporting from the right. Rooney can double up with Evra on Messi, whilst Park can help out O’Shea with Henry. We are going to have to be strong defensively tonight and I’d just rather Ronaldo to be out of the way for that. I don’t want to be relying on him to track back on Henry, so stick him up front and let him run their defence ragged, rather than having to get too involved in our defensive battle.
The defence will feel confident after keeping Barcelona out for both semi-final games last season, but it is undeniable that Barca have improved somewhat since then. Concentration is the key for this game though, with our opponents having so many skilful players. Messi keeps the ball close to his feet so our defenders need to make sure they’re on the ball and ready to block, with opportunities of tackling likely to be more difficult to come across. You’d like to think that in training Ferguson has had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez running at our defence over and over to give our back four an idea of what they will be having to deal with.
O’Shea is obviously the weak link in this line-up, although nowhere near as weak as he would have been a few months ago. There have been times this season where he has really stood out as being some way off the ability of his team mates. However, since being given a more regular role and not being shoved on at left back for 15 minutes here, or in the centre of defence for 10 minutes there, he has come on leaps and bounds. His passing has also improved a lot, with Ronaldo more able to rely on O’Shea to complete a give and go routine, as John has shown several times he can play accurate balls over the head of whoever is on his side of the park.
I didn’t expect us to be here but now that we are, I want it as much as ever. I’m a United brat, spoilt by our success and trophies, and the need to win this trophy is enough to make me dizzy.
The nerves and fear and excitement are bubbling up to what feels like unimaginable levels. You can’t help but imagine how it would feel to win it again this year, how hard you would celebrate our opening goal going in, our second goal, our third goal… The idea of it all makes you ache. But this is what it’s all about. This is what our club is all about.
So come on lads, fucking do this! Write your names in to our history books and make yourselves heroes to the fans who love this club so much.
For Sir Matt, numquam moribimur.