By Jonathan Fryer.
A lot can define the way you feel about a game of football, obviously your own team’s result will naturally have a massive bearing on it, so too would the quality of the football, throw in a few stellar names and some quality goals for good measure and you should have most of the recipe for a classic match-up. However, surely the most vital factor on this list would have to be the way in which it makes you feel, and strangely, after watching United win a European Cup in 2008, put eight past Arsenal last year and numerous victories over our fiercest rivals Liverpool, no match has made me feel as I did on the evening of Tuesday the 24th of April 2007.
Manchester United had always been a part of my life, with my grandfather adopting it as the ‘family club’ during the unfortunate attention United received following the Munich air disaster I had been raised on a healthy diet of weekends staring in awe at artists such as Scholes, van Nistelrooy, Beckham, Giggs and Keane, however, only once I started high school and the 2006/2007 season began, did I begin to properly pay attention to the team’s fortunes and wow, was I in for a treat.
The club had amazingly not won a league title since 2003 and I was knowingly beginning to follow a club that had just sold their most senior striker in Ruud van Nistelrooy as well as having their captain and midfield general, Roy Keane leave by cutting his contract short. Michael Carrick came in from Tottenham Hotspur but the club had important players maturing in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. As the season progressed, United played exciting attacking football with Sir Alex Ferguson finally having the resources to take on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Meanwhile, by April United had reached the Champion’s League semi-final which, in doing so meant that they had been drawn against a high-flying Milan side driven by the attacking prowess of their Brazilian number 10, Kaka.
All of a sudden, United’s relatively thin squad, by the club’s standards, was beginning to show. A crunching challenge by the late Gary Speed on club-captain Gary Neville as well as various niggles to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand meant that a back four of Gabriel Heinze, Wes Brown, John O’ Shea and Patrice Evra had to line-up against the six-time European champions. Make no mistake; this game was full of stars with many powerful names lining up to make up a classic Milan squad including Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf, Maldini, Grosso, Dida and, as previously mentioned, Kaka, who eventually went on to win the Ballon d’Or that year.
The previous Champions League game to be played at Old Trafford ended 7-1 to United when the team took on AS Roma to overturn a 2-1 away deficit and they began the match just where they left off as Ronaldo put away a header after four minutes. The match then shifted momentum as the rest of the first half effectively became ‘The Kaka Show’ as he ran our second-string defence ragged. With that sort of form Kaka was essentially unstoppable; pace, drive, decision making and flair, enough to startle any backline. By the time it reached half-time Milan had established a 1-2 lead to which Sir Alex Ferguson and his squad had to reply.
They did. Aided by Gattuso, who before then had basically been marshalling the game, had to be subbed off after 52 minutes which was the signal for United’s own midfield maestro, Paul Scholes, to seize the midfield masterfully as he still does today. This was illustrated by a remarkable scoop over an uncharacteristically flat Milan backline, with a young Wayne Rooney on his wavelength, the ex-Evertonian forward made an early run and finished well enough for Dida to save it into his own net.
The pressure continued as chances from a Carrick header and multiple step-over filled cut-ins from Ronaldo increased the pressure as the Stretford End grew louder with every passing minute.
But Rooney’s first goal was not to be the last involvement between a veteran and Rooney, with 91 minutes played and United fans flooding out of Old Trafford to beat the traffic they were forced to turn around as Ryan Giggs burst down the left as he’s done for the best part of twenty years now and played a reverse through-ball into Rooney who took the shot first time as it came across him and found the bottom-left hand corner of Dida’s net. The comeback was complete and a fourteen year old me celebrated around my living room knowing that even with little-sleep due to the late kick-off, seeing my favourite player score a last minute winner would provide a sufficient week-long high. That feeling has seldom come close to being recreated and watching Wazza slide across the turf as the entire team piled up on top of him was truly something absolutely remarkable.
Unfortunately, the dream was dead two weeks later, after a hard-fought 4-2 win at Goodison Park a tired looking Man United team had to travel to the San Siro where goals from Kaka, Seedorf and Gilardino without reply dumped us out of the competition. This was not to be known seconds after the first leg came to an end, which resulted in a feeling nobody could ever take away.
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