By Callum Jones.
To most football fans, a game is much more than the 90 minutes it’s represents. It’s a memory, an occasion and something that can stick in your mind forever. Of course, the majority of these ‘memories’ and ‘occasions’ are the big ones. Barcelona 99. Moscow 08. Wembley 68. But I’m going to write about one of my favourites, which although may not be as huge an occasion as those listed above, I feel has as much significance and excitement, as any other.
It was the 5th of April, 2009. Manchester United, as they so often do, found themselves at the summit of the Premier League, coming into the last leg of the season. However, the opposition were a familiar foe, as the reds of Merseyside, Liverpool were closing in on the Red Devils. United were aiming to equal the Reds’ 18th league title, and seemingly, they were in no mood to give it up easily. United had led most of the way, but back to back defeats at Fulham and a humiliation from the aforementioned rivals at Old Trafford had blow the title race wide open. Only one thing was for sure. United could not lose again.
Aston Villa were the team with the task of handing United their 3rd consecutive defeat for the first time in 7 years, but the odds looked against them. The Villains last beat United in 1995, and 16 games later, had not come any closer to achieving it.
And it all started well. James Milner inadvertently scuffed a back pass to Keeper Brad Friedel, and Cristiano Ronaldo smashed home the resulting Free Kick. 1-0 to the Red Devils. It appeared all was well again in the footballing world.
But it wasn’t. Gary Neville, who was operating in an unfamiliar central defensive position, was given grief all afternoon, and was culpable in Villa’s equalizer. Gareth Barry whipped in an inch perfect ball, and an unmarked John Carew nodded in, to send the away fans into a frenzy.
The scores remained level until after the break. The Reds lacked urgency and ultimately a cutting edge. Even Ronaldo looked out of ideas. And it was about to get a lot worse. The Portuguese winger gave away possession inside the Villa half, and a break from John Carew left United exposed, and his ball into the box allowed Gabby Agbonlahor to sneak in an slot past van der Sar to give the visitors the lead. The wheels seemed to be falling off the United machine.
It was time for changes. Desperate or inspired, it mattered not. An uncertain feel surrounded Old Trafford when young strikers Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda entered the fray, with just a matter of Premier League minute to their names. It was now or never for Sir Alex Ferguson and United’s season.
But it was a familiar face who would get them back in it. Good work from Michael Carrick freed up Ronaldo on the edge of the area, who cut back and fired a low shot across an unsighted Friedel to creep in a huge equalizer. But one point would not be enough. Not here.
The proverbial kitchen sink was being slung. Darren Fletcher forced an incredible save from the Villa keeper from close range, before the American repeated the feat moments later, to deny teenage substitute Danny Welbeck from becoming an instant United hero.
But as is the case so often at this wonderful club, things were done the hard way. With just seconds left, Ryan Giggs found the Italian Macheda, who just days earlier had scored a memorable hat trick for the reserve team, and after an audacious turn, he curled the ball past Friedel and into the far corner to send Fergie, and 75,000 supporters inside Old Trafford, into absolute ecstasy.
United had won. They had stopped the rot. And they would go on to win the league just 43 days later with a home draw against Arsenal. There were many standout performances that won United their 18th title, to draw them level with great rivals Liverpool. But I think Mr Macheda’s debut goal may have topped the lot.
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