It's part five, which means handing over to In Bed With Maradona's Dave Hartrick...
Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid, April 23 2003
The problem with the Champions League is that until the latter stages there are far too many mismatches. Every year the draw comes through for the groups and all we can look forward to until the next round is Barcelona waltzing through six games in which they’ll never be required to shift in to top gear. Yes, we love the Caligula style orgy of football as up to eight games are screened for us to red button to and from, but in reality, for every shock there’s 30 games that equate to a little kid swinging punches but being held at arms length by a teenager.
So why do we love the Champions League so much if there is such an obvious but unavoidable flaw in the competition?
Simple – wade through the group stages and we come to games like this one, the real deal if you will, Manchester United vs Real Madrid, two giants of the game with a penchant for attacking football thrown together. The anticipation alone as soon as a draw is made is enough for the football junkie to develop a noticeable twitch.
Now there is no denying often these games are disappointing but that’s usually as a result of the saturation coverage pre-game - no match on earth could live up to the 1000’s of words some are subjected to – and in many cases hindsight and review shows more merit than first afforded. However some live up to the hype without a second viewing. Some even surpass it.
And so we come to a fresh April’s evening at Old Trafford.
Now there were two subplots here from the word go, the most prominent being United’s battle to fight back from a starting position of 3-1 behind. With that precious away goal some gave United a fair chance but defensively they could be frail. Real’s Galaticos would have to be marshalled far better than they had been in the first leg, where Figo and Raul had punished Barthez’s indecision and a United backline affording them far too much respect.
The second subplot was a previous Champions League game in 2000 in which United had been hopelessly outclassed. The home leg in particular had exposed United’s naivety in refusing to change their game in Europe. Despite a 2-3 scoreline suggesting a close game a last minute Paul Scholes penalty had given the result a false air, especially when considering they had been 3-0 down.
So the media machine was growling at it’s loudest and a look at the team sheets bears out their hyperbole. On the pitch at Old Trafford at the same time would be the likes of Zidane, Veron, Ronaldo, Scholes, Guti, Van Nistelrooy, Figo, Giggs, Carlos and coming on from the bench for a sensational half an hour with something to prove, David Beckham. This was the starriest of match-ups and as a neutral you could only hope the stars aligned to give us something special.
And for once they did.
It’s easier to talk about this game in its different elements rather than a whole review as such. For starters Ronaldo’s hat trick was a thing of absolutely beauty. His first showed his terrific vision and accuracy to beat Barthez on the run from the edge of the area, the second his predatory instinct and movement to be in the right place to finish Roberto Carlos’s cross and as for the third? Power. His breath-taking, absolute, injury defying and frightening power.
You want more than one of the stand out performances of one of the greatest strikers of all time?
How about 30 minutes of a rampaging, stung in to action David Beckham. Relegated to the bench and with rumours of a deteriation of his relationship with Fergie and a potential move in the air, he came on for Veron and preceded to throw himself into the game. Having only been on about 10 minutes or so he lined up a free kick that looked like an exercise in massaging the Beckham ego. Completely the wrong side for a right footer and well wide of Casillas’s right post, it had row Z written on the ball in permanent marker. Defying the odds Beckham pulled it over the wall and into the top corner as an absolute slap in the face to those of us who dared to doubt him. In the pantheon of great Beckham free kicks, this remains my favourite.
How about as a one-off stand alone game this being just about the most typical of all Manchester United performances. Brilliant on the counter, slightly complacent at the back but more than that, at 4-1 down on aggregate still they kept coming. At no point did Real run away with the game despite their huge aggregate advantage, United took on a Los Blancos side used to lauding it over domestic opponents and never let the tie die. 4-3 on the night, 5-6 in the match overall, Real had never run as hard before and wouldn’t again all season.
What about a legacy then. It was the game that allegedly earned Beckham his dream move to Real Madrid to join the other Galaticos. In half an hour he had proved there was more to his game than selling shirts to Japanese tourists.
It was also the game that allegedly convinced Roman Abramovich that buying an English football club was going to be his next major purchase. The match has repeatedly haunted Chelsea managers as they fail to match the game’s attacking swagger and if things continue to run to form, it will continue to do so for a long time to come.
I could go on but just watch it – you’ll soon understand why it was such an affecting night at Old Trafford. Despite all the drama thick in the Manchester air my favourite moment remains a substitution. Job done and feeling the pace of such a high tempo game, Ronaldo was taken off with about 25 minutes to go. The Old Trafford crowd rose and gave the striker a standing ovation in unison, it had been a special performance from a special player that transcended the rivalry. For a sport so regularly derided for producing some of life’s most unsavoury moments, it’s also important to note it can provide some of the highest respect.
If you've not already been to In Bed With Maradona, we recommend you do so immediately. You can also enjoy Dave's many pearls of wisdom / stark raving madness on Twitter @Hartch