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Monday, 23 May 2011

Euro Revision #1: Manchester United v Fiorentina

With the Champions League Final at Wembley looming, here's the first of a new Magic Spongers mini-series looking back at our favourite European games: Twisted Blood's Andi Thomas gets alarmingly hot and bothered about Gabriel Batistuta.

Manchester United 3-1 Fiorentina, 15 March 2000

I don't know a single football fan that doesn't have a special place in their heart for Fiorentina; there may be some (Juventus? Empoli?), but I don't know them. I suspect that this is, on some fundamental level, down to the sheer purpleness of their kit. Other purple sides are available, of course – Anderlecht, Germinal Beerschot, and a load of others I'd never heard of until I asked Twitter (Saprissa of Costa Rica, anybody?) – but nobody is as richly, as fundamentally, and as gloriously violet as the Tuscans. And, at the turn of the millennium, we got to watch that wonderful purple draped across the shoulders of a seriously tasty team.

At the back, Francesco Toldo – who I suppose must have been young at the time, even though I suspect he was born aged 34, has been 34 throughout his life and will die, forty- or fifty-odd years hence, aged 34 – kept nets behind German international Jörg Heinrich and Czech nutbar Tomáš Řepka. The midfield was given steel by Angelo di Livio and silk by Rui Costa; the former would go on to become a Florentine hero by staying with the club through bankruptcy and resurrection, while the latter remains one of the finest purveyors of the through-ball ever to grace Serie A. And up front, just ahead of the Montenegrin genius Predrag Mijatović, and keeping £9m signing Enrico Chiesa on the bench, one of the greatest strikers of his or any other generation: Gabriel Batistuta.

(This next two paragraphs are perhaps a little over the top. Feel free to skip them. All you need to know is that (a) Batistuta was quite good, and (b) he scored the opening goal. Bit of a cracker.)

Batistuta (yes, I would, and so would you) defied his celestial name: he was an elemental footballer, a titan who seemed, in his proudest aspect, to have risen unbidden from the dark and secret places of the earth. His shoulders were coiled with latent menace; his thighs pulsed with barely suppressed violence; and he hit defences with the same shocking impropriety as a suspension bridge, awoken by tremors from sleep, hits a river. But it wasn't just quivering, brutal power. He had a velveteen touch that belied-yet-enhanced his force: he was a sledgehammer, sleeping in silken sheets.

Speaking of hammers, if Thor had chucked in the thunder business and taken up football – pausing only to melt Mjölnir into a pair of boots – he'd have trotted onto the pitch, taken one look at Batistuta, and skulked back to his clouds, muttering and cowed. He was as close to the Platonic form of a striker as has ever stalked the green fields of Europe, and rumours had been swirling all season that he would be bringing his diabolical perfection to Old Trafford. The game was set up by some, then, as an audition, and he passed after sixteen minutes, when he took one touch to kill the ball, a second to delete Jaap Stam, and a third to slam the ball past a helpless and hapless Mark Bosnich. The air screamed with violated joy.

(Yes, okay, it was Mark Bosnich. Ron Atkinson, co-commentating for ITV, laid some of the blame with the goalkeeper; Clive Tyldesley, on the other hand, disagrees, shrieking about the “speed-of-light strike”; and for once, Tyldesley was right. Not only is the ball hit with more power than seems feasible or just, but it breaks viciously from right-to-left. Peter Schmeichel wouldn't have stopped it, and nor would Lev Yashin. Nor would the walls of Jericho. Frankly, he fucking battered it.)

It had been a frantic start. Batistuta had put a speculative snapshot into the side-netting, and Rui Costa had, when presented with a relatively routine one-on-one, managed to fire straight at Bosnich. And United, finding joy down the flanks, had missed two chances of their own: Dwight Yorke trod on the ball in front of an open goal, while Beckham, in a reversal of roles, just failed to get on the end of an Andy Cole cross, Fabio Rossitto making an outstanding and crucial intervention. While Fiorentina's passing was slick and purposeful, Ryan Giggs was anything but anonymous on the left-wing, and it was clear already that the movement of Cole and Yorke were causing problems for the Italian centre-backs.

United equalised minutes later. Gary Neville lofted a high ball towards Cole on the edge of the Fiorentina penalty area, who goes one better than Batistuta, by bringing the ball down and working the space with a single touch, before almost passing it into the side of Toldo's net. Again, Big Ron blames the keeper, and again that's overly harsh: it's a goal of quieter class, but nevertheless impressive, and is placed with the precision that characterised so many of Cole's goals for United. He almost scored a better one minutes later, beating two men on the left of the box before attempting the kind of chip that cries out to be called “audacious”. Toldo, scrambling, made the save. Moments afterwards, Beckham fired in a deep, fizzing corner, Henning Berg headed back across the box and onto the bar, and Roy Keane positively welted the rebound into the net, nearly decapitating a Florentine in the process.

At the time, of course, it felt like nothing more than a cracking game. United, stung by falling behind, played as well as they had all season to overwhelm a talented and dangerous side. And, while true classic status was perhaps out of reach – this was, after all, the Champions League Second Group Stage, a misbegotten innovation that has been mercifully consigned to the elephant's graveyard of “Shit Ideas By Football Administrators”, where it lies rotting happily alongside the Silver Goal, the FA Cup 3rd Place Play-Off, and the Intertoto Cup – and while the game was effectively ended by the dismissal of Rossitto just after the hour, it was nevertheless a pleasure. The third, when it came, was a precise Yorke header across Toldo from a Giggs cross; United, by the end, could have had six. Yorke and Cole were at their beguiling best, Keane was excellent, and Giggs was at his most blood-twisting.

Hindsight shows that this was the last hurrah of that United side in Europe. A nil-nil draw with a much-changed team in Valencia rounded out the group, and then came that two-legged Real Madrid game: tepid and over-cautious away, then filleted by Fernando Redondo at home. And in response, so the story goes, came Ferguson's decision to break up the Hallowed Quartet in midfield, to introduce an extra man in the centre, to accept the need for tactical flexibility, for caution, and above all for control. That road would lead, via Juan Sebastián Verón and Cristiano Ronaldo, to the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008, to John Terry's tears and to Ferguson's second European Cup.

But this game – a joyous skelping – was the last flourish of a simpler, more charming time, when United knew how to take corners, when His Homoerotic Majesty still walked the earth, and when 'goals for' was more important than 'goals against'. When Big Ron wasn't a racist, and when Ryan Giggs was a winger. It was a different time, and it was a different United.

Andi is both halves of the quite exceptional Twisted Blood. If you'd like to berate him for any or all of this article you can find him on Twitter @Twisted_Blood

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