Thursday, 21 April 2011

United Have a Semi

Manchester United have been involved in some unforgettable Champions League semi-finals in recent years, and that time has come around again.

Despite the vast majority of reds agreeing that 'United > England' rings true, Manchester United and England share a common enemy: German sides.

Though - as some of you may remember - United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 on the 26th of May 1999 to regain the European Cup after 31 years, we don't have the best of records against 'the old enemy' on the continental stage.

In 1997, it was in the semi finals that United were eliminated by two Borussia Dortmund defeats. Bayern beat us home and away to end our 2000/01 dreams at the quarter final stage. A promising 2001/02 campaign ended on away goals in the semi finals to a Bayer Leverkusen side that included Oliver Neuville, Michael Ballack, Lucio, and a Bulgarian by the name of Dimitar Berbatov. And of course a superb volley by Arjen Robben knocked us out on Bayern's behalf last season.

Add those to the 2003 group-stage defeat at Stuttgart and it makes for pretty sorry reading going into the Schalke tie - but I thought I'd lighten the mood.

Of course, the reds' nineteenth English Championship is not yet secured - I'm not getting ahead of myself. But with the imminence of Tuesday's trip to Gelsenkirchen I felt it appropriate to look back on some of recent history's most thrilling displays in the penultimate round of Europe's biggest spectacle.

Old Trafford: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 29/04/2008.

We remember Paul Scholes' thunderous response to Gianluca Zambrotta's misplaced clearance; not Ronaldo's penalty miss in the first leg at Camp Nou.

Wesley Brown, Owen Hargreaves and Nani played incredibly that night.

After Scholes' opener we showed the discipline to defend rather than seek to increase the lead over Frank Rijkaard's Catalan giants that night. Young Lionel Messi was resigned to desperate dives in the penalty box while United marched towards their third European Cup final in Moscow.

The crowd were outstanding that night; the atmosphere was the best I have ever witnessed in my 18 years at Old Trafford. Deafening, supportive, uplifting; tense.

The Emirates: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 05/05/2009.

Because United's progression from that semi-final tie was so devastatingly comprehensive, the only drama was Roberto Rosetti's disgusting decision to show the red card to Darren Fletcher for an excellent tackle and deny him a place in the starting line-up in Rome. Fletcher didn't need to track Francesc Fabregas the way he did as the reds were 4-0 up on aggregate with 15 minutes
to go; but he instinctively tracked the Spaniard brilliantly. The Scot didn't let Fabregas out of his sight as he received the ball in the box, yet was sent off for making the tackle of the competition.

Heartbreak for Fletcher aside, the two games against Arsenal in the Champions League that season were awesome.

Three minutes after Ji-Sung Park capitalised on a Kieran Gibbs slip in the eighth minute to add to John O'Shea's goal from the first leg and give United an almost-unassailable lead in the tie, Cristiano Ronaldo arrogantly attempted to send a 35-yard free kick directly past Manuel Almunia - and succeeded.

But United weren't finished. In fact, their next goal was even better. Bacary Sagna saw a 61st minute cross headed away from danger by Nemanja Vidic. Three players, seven touches, and 11 seconds later, the ball was in the back of the Arsenal net.

Stadio delle Alpi: Champions League semi-final (second leg) 21/04/1999.

It's hard to believe that night in Turin was 12 years ago today.

Inzaghi's five-minute brace. Keano's booking. Keano's 'captain's goal' and the three Juventus defenders the 5'10" Irishman had no right to rise above. Stam's goal-line clearance. Yorke's spectacular header. Inzaghi's characteristic offside goal. Irwin's shot off the post.

And Andy Cole's winner - one of my favourite moments supporting United.

Dwight Yorke latched onto a huge Schmeichel punt, charged his way through (if memory serves) Iuliano and Pessotto , and was brought down by goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi as he skipped around him in the penalty area. Cole, not tempted by the sure offer of a penalty, arrived to avenge his tripped strike partner and finish from a dauntingly acute angle. Before being mobbed by his fellow heroes, Cole threw his arm in the air and smiled that toothy grin that every red loved.

Full speed ahead Barcelona.

In Schalke, United face dangerously unknown German opposition. I expect a strict midfield, notoriously opportunist strikers, and solid back four.

I also expect drama.

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