I’m starting to feel the excitement of Europe, an excitement I haven’t had in regards to Europe for quite a while now. The magic of the Champions League has gradually fizzled away since our success in 1999. We made the quarter finals the two following years, and both times, got knocked out by the eventual winners. The following season we reached the semi’s, and were knocked out because of away goals. The following season we made it as far as the quarters, and following the heavenly game and victory at Old Trafford against Real Madrid, went out because of Real’s one goal superiority. Savour those goals by Beckham, and the wondrous “Fat/Real” Ronaldo hatrick, because that’s as good as it gets for a while.
The game that denied us our eight European Cup quarter final appearance in a row is one that still grates on most United fans. The fact Mourinho’s men dived throughout the two encounters to get a result should have been irrelevant, after Paul Scholes scored his second goal of the game on the half hour mark. The fact that three men were playing him onside appeared irrelevant to the linesman who flagged him for offside leading to the perfectly legitimate goal to be ruled out. So cue Porto’s late equalising goal, and we’re out of the European Cup.
The following season, I approached watching the Milan games with dread. Ruud had been out since November before we faced AC Milan in February. He was brought back too soon, with a place on the bench, to offer some option to United who were playing the failing 4-3-3 with Ronaldo and Giggs supporting Rooney up front. Thinking back, I probably approached every game with a feeling of dread that season, as these were the days we had Roy Carroll as our number one. This feeling was realised, with just over ten minutes left to play, when Seedorf directed a weak shot that Carroll needed to do nothing more than catch. Of course this was too much to ask of the useless keeper who wasn’t competent enough to even warm our bench, spilling the shot, gifting Crespo the goal.
The return leg was much of the same, except now Silvestre was playing instead of the injured Gary Neville, and Ruud, who hadn’t scored since November, was now starting, and still resembled nothing close to his former self. We’d drawn to Crystal Palace just three days before, despite our lowly opposition going down to ten men with almost half an hour left to play. So Howard fills in for the out of favour Carroll, in the season we spent playing one until they fucked up, and then playing the other. Carroll, Phil Neville, Bellion, Smith, Miller, O’Shea, Fortune kept the bench cosy. Cue Howard fuck up, cue Crespo goal, and United are out of the European Cup.
Last season we were utterly gutless in Europe, and our saving grace was finishing bottom of the group so we weren’t forced to compete in the UEFA Cup. Roy Keane said what a lot of fans thought, and our 1-0 defeat to Lille around this time spelt the beginning of the end of our 05-06 European campaign. Ok, it wasn’t great times for United, being forced to play O’Shea and Silvestre in place of the injured Neville and Heinze, playing Richardson, Fletcher and Smith in midfield in place of the injured Giggs, Scholes and Keane, leaving us with a bench boasting youth team players Pique, Rossi, Bardsley and Richie Jones! Regardless, our earliest exit in eleven years was on the cards before the away visit to Benfica, despite taking an early lead. We went in 2-1 down at half time, and showed little grit, determination or desire in the second half to amend this.
Fast forward just over a year, and we see an entirely different Manchester United. A team that was crippled by injuries last season is now thriving and improving all the time. The new addition of Henrik Larsson can only strengthen what is a positively frightening attack, averaging just short of three goals a game since his arrival. Our bench is no longer a mish mash of youth team players who have a handful of first team games between them, but five players boasting ability, experience and strength, in the likes of Heinze, Brown, Larsson, Solskjaer and Park. Ronaldo has grown from a fancy trickster eager to impress on the European stage but not quite hitting it, to a skilful, composed, deadly weapon, with only one player managing more assists than him in Europe. Saha has come out of Ruud’s shadow, making his mark on Europe, being one goal short of the highest scorer in the Champions League.
This isn’t to say we’ve had an entirely convincing European campaign so far, and our away defeats to Copenhagen and Celtic certainly didn’t help. But essentially, we did enough to get by, and we’re two months further on now. We’ve rid ourselves of some of last seasons ghosts, beating Benfica 3-1 at home, meaning we finished top of the group and knocked out Benfica in the process. Now it’s time to go one step further, and convincingly beat Lille to book our place in the quarter finals. Eight days to go, and for the first time in a few years, I am hugely excited about the European Cup.