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Slipperduke

The Camden Cad
Joined
Aug 24, 2004
Messages
4,333
Location
North London
The stage is now set for what we can confidently call, without any fear of exaggeration, the most important English club football match in history. Manchester United's hard-fought progression to the European Cup Final means that, whatever happens tonight, it will be an all-Premier League affair in Moscow. The Russian police force must be absolutely delighted with that news.

Barcelona had more shots and enjoyed the lion's share of the ball, but they were never quite able to convert their posession into clear-cut chances. Thierry Henry twice squirmed his way in on goal, but on both occasions the ball flew at Edwin van der Sar like a pin to a magnet. Deco missed as well, once over and once wide, while all the genius of Lionel Messi went to waste as his team-mates failed to make the best of his impish runs and through-balls. Barcelona were beaten, fairly and squarely, by the better team.

It was fitting that the crucial goal, the strike that took United to their first European final for nine years, was crashed home by the man who missed that historic night at the Camp Nou in 1999 through suspension. When Gianluca Zambrotta's reckless blind pass fell at Scholes' feet, you knew instantly where the ball was going to end up. Victor Valdes would have had more luck trying to catch a comet.

"He's one of our great players," said a jubilant Sir Alex Ferguson after the final whistle. "He's come through the ranks, he knows the club inside out."

"Will he be the first name on the team-sheet in Moscow?" asked a reporter.

"Absolutely!" beamed Ferguson.

But as wonderful as Scholes' thunderbolt was, this was not a victory won through superior firepower. Since Nemanja Vidic began to fall apart at the seams, the common consensus has been that Wes Brown is a substandard replacement. Not this time, he wasn't. The English defender, more accustomed to the role of full-back, was a mountain at the back, making two critical late challenges as Barcelona pressed forward in desperation. Next to him, Rio Ferdinand was equally magnificent. Time and time again the Catalans poured forward, strikers zipping this way and that, frantically trying to find an inch or two of space, but always ending up on the wrong side of an impregnable red wall.

Barcelona were beautiful in everything they did, but as Arsenal found out this season, it's an attribute that's only skin-deep. United had more desire, more fight, more hunger for that trip to Moscow. Carlos Tevez, in particular, pounded across the pitch all night, hurling himself into challenges and tearing back into his own half to deny Barcelona the time they needed on the ball. He wasn't alone. Cristiano Ronaldo played his heart out for the team, even if he wasn't able to deliver the goal that he'd promised as penance for his spot-kick miss. Owen Hargreaves kept Andres Iniesta in his pocket. Ji-Sung Park fought valiantly to create chances. For the Catalans, only Carlos Puyol, Yaya Toure and Messi can be truly satisfied with their contributions.

"I can't put it into words," gasped an exhausted Ferdinand at full-time. "We had to dig in deep, we stayed together and we're there now. We don't care who it is. We're waiting for whoever comes."

The identity of their opponents will be revealed later tonight at Stamford Bridge, but whether it's Chelsea or Liverpool, one thing is abundantly clear. Manchester United are back.
 

Slipperduke

The Camden Cad
Joined
Aug 24, 2004
Messages
4,333
Location
North London
Manchester United's breathless victory over Barcelona may have been good viewing for their own fans, but you can bet that no-one at Stamford Bridge was as enthusiastic about the match. Chelsea have fought their way back into the title race with grit, consistency and a fine victory over their rivals, but they still need the champions to slip up, just once, if they're to regain the title. On the evidence of that display, Avram Grant is out of luck. United are going to romp home in their final two league games and then it would be a brave man who bets against them winning in Moscow.

People were very quick to point fingers at Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection at the weekend, but it looks like a master-stroke now. Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez were all left out on Saturday and all returned to put in an outstanding shift at Old Trafford. Ferguson had said that it was impossible to play in the Camp Nou, Stamford Bridge and then again against Barcelona in the space of one week. The defeat to Chelsea was bad, but now you can talk about handballs, denied penalty appeals, fights in the tunnel and brawls in the warm-down all you like. The simple fact is that United just need to beat West Ham and Wigan to secure their 17th league title.

This was a performance of a team who have banished their doubts, put fear to the back of their mind and knuckled down for the final fight. As much as Barcelona dominated through possession and chances, United never looked like buckling. Thierry Henry's point-blank header was the only time that Edwin van der Sar's net looked in serious danger. Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown kept their strikers at bay, ably assisted by excellent performances from Patrice Evra and Owen Hargreaves.

Manchester United have rarely done themselves justice in this competition. There are few teams in Europe who have spent as long at the top of their domestic leagues, so the return of just one European Cup in fifteen years is poor. Traditionally, they crash out at the semi-final stage after attempting to win every competition they enter. Their premature elimination in the FA Cup may actually have been a blessing in disguise. Of course, having 75,000 fans to carry them over the line didn't hurt either. Every club has looked at Liverpool's fervent support and wondered if their own fans could contribute so passionately. United followers passed the test.

For Barcelona, it's very much the end of an era. Frank Rijkaard insisted that he wouldn't quit his post, but with the team out of Europe and third in La Liga, he may not even get the chance. His time at the Camp Nou is up whether he likes it or not. Barcelona are caught between two eras. A future of Lionel Messi, Bojan and Yaya Toure is bright, but the Catalans must shed their past this summer. The ever-expanding bottom of Ronaldinho needs to be punted out of the door instantly and, from the look of Samuel Eto'o, there's a strong case for him changing his scene as well. Victor Valdes is not a top class goalkeeper and I have my doubts about Gabriel Milito as well. A new broom sweeps clean, so they say, and the identity of that new broom should announced in the next month.
 
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