There are few clubs who pose any real threat to Manchester United’s claim that they are the biggest club in the world, Barcelona are one of them, Milan and Juventus’ at a serious stretch, but perhaps the only team to who can seriously challenge United for that title are Real Madrid.
Los Blancos, the most successful club in European Cup and Champions League history, command a level of respect afforded to few and never more so than during the early stages of their Galacticos experiment, a time when they took Europe by storm winning three Champions Leagues in five season between 1997 and 2002.
During that time they dispatched United with one of the best performances I have ever seen, a 3-2 win at Old Trafford in 2000, but that isn’t the game I’m going to focus on. Instead, I’m going to focus on the second leg of the 2003 Quarter Final at Old Trafford, a game United won, but lost on aggregate. A game in which a portly Brazilian people refer to as “The real Ronaldo” showed us just how good he was.
The Madrid XI read like a fantasy football team. Future World Cup winning keeper Iker Casillas playing behind one of the greatest liberos of all time, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Helguera the brawn to Hierro’s guile in the centre of defence. Either side of them they had two of the most attacking wing backs in the world, the tirelessly dedicated Salgado on the right and the prodigiously talented Roberto Carlos on the left.
Figo manned whichever flank took his fancy, switching depending on which opposition full back he fancied teasing at any given moment. Makelele patrolled the area between defence and halfway, breaking up attacks and feeding the more creative players in front of him and what creative players they were. Zidane, the maestro with free reign of the field to control the tempo and pick his passes, Guti alongside him the unsung hero with the perfect blend of creativity, teamwork and work rate.
Up front was the most complete striker of our generation, carrying a stone or so more than he should and still not fully recovered from the knee injuries that had plagued his career, but still capable of destroying a defence with his movement, pace and finishing. A team so good that they could afford to play Steve McManaman on the left and make him look good. Oh, and a quick mention for their manager, future World Cup mastermind Vicente Del Bosque.
The subsequent drought and off field goings on have gone a long way to ruining memories of how good this side was, let me put it in context, they did Barcelona before Barcelona did Barcelona. A midfield that shielded the ball beautifully, there were questions to be asked of the defence, but when was the opposition going to get a chance to ask them? Their ability was down to their mentality, not just their ability, though their ability obviously shaped their mentality. Players so good that they knew they could take their time, stroking passes from side to side, safe in the knowledge that if an opportunity presented itself they were more than capable of making that pass and the man tasked with finishing them was the best in the business.
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United had a very capable side of their own, though there were areas of concern. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking at United’s back five for this game sends a shiver down the spine, Barthez, Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre and O’Shea. That seems harsh on Brown, O’Shea and Ferdinand, but aged 23, 22 and 24 respectively, they lacked experience and lacked a goalkeeper they could rely on.
Going forward was a very different proposition. Keane and Butt were there to dominate midfield, leaving Seba Veron to play in the hole and use his fantastic array of passing to the best of his ability, on the left was Giggs who still had the pace to torture defenders. Up front was a man who had just set a new record for Champions League goals scored, Ruud Van Nistelrooy who was midway through a season that would see him score an unprecedented 44 goals. The big shock for United was that Beckham didn’t make the team and found himself on the bench, Ole Solskjaer played in his place as the first signs of discontent emerged between Ferguson and his former golden boy.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game tactically, the overall tactics of both side seemed to focus on attack whenever and wherever, was the number of free roles in the Madrid side and the willingness of such stars to cover their team-mates (Jose take note). McManaman drifted from left to centre and back to left back if Roberto Carlos moved forward.
Figo shifted from left to right, tracked back to the edge of the area and then held back waiting for the ball to be won and distributed, ready for a counter attack. Guti supported Ronaldo as much as possible, but when it wasn’t possible he supported Makelele. Zidane had been given free reign of the centre of the pitch, but actually ended up supporting the men behind him rather than the man in front.
United, on the other hand, had just one player in a free role, Veron and his team-mates found themselves in a very rigid 4-2-1-2-1 formation. The over-reliance on that diagonal ball from full back to the winger on the other side of the pitch was plain to see, but the best football came when Keane managed to calm things down just long enough for Veron to pick his pass and let the front three do their stuff.
The opening goal was built in space, the Galacticos showing what they were capable of with a string of one touch passes that resulted in Ronaldo firing a first time effort between Barthez and his near post. It was his first shot of the game. The slim hope United held thanks to an away goal at the Bernabeu had been cancelled out.
Despite this they fought back and started to take control of the game, Van Nistelrooy stinging Casillas hands on more than one occasion. Just before half time he found the net, Solskjaer sliding in to poke a cross beyond the young keeper and Ruud nudging the ball into an empty net despite the attention of Salgado.
The goal just before half time gave United the impetus, however, after the break, it was Madrid who would regain the lead. A period of pressure that saw Figo hit the bar, culminated in Ronaldo slotting his second home from close range after a Roberto Carlos cross from the left. United didn’t give up and, thanks to a calamitous own goal from Helguera (somehow managing to back heel it between Casillas legs) United levelled the scores on the night and took the aggregate score to 5-3 in Madrid’s favour.
Unfortunately for United, Ronaldo was having one of those nights where everything he touched turned to gold and Madrid regained the lead when he fired a 30 yard screamer into the top right corner of the net, Barthez positioning in question once again. The gap toothed Brazilian would leave the Old Trafford pitch that night to a standing ovation, United fans all too happy to show their appreciation of such a talented player, despite their frustration at the final score-line.
United managed two more goals, a trademark free kick from Beckham and a second own goal, this time from Hierro who diverted Van Nistelrooy’s shot over the line, but it wasn’t enough. They would end the night 4-3 victors, but exit the competition 6-5 on aggregate.
There are few times I can feel good about a loss, but on that night the players couldn’t have done anything more, with the exception of Barthez (who actually played his final match for United on that night). They were up against a team who on their night could humble whoever you put in front of them and if nothing else, seeing Ronaldo at his clinical best was an absolute joy to behold.
About Simon McPolin
Simon is one half of the Debatable Decisions team, a blog which analyses the performance of referees and takes to task the players who would rather cheat than perform. Their Decisions League Table aims to prove which teams really do get the rub of the green more often than not and which teams suffer most at the hands of the man in black. A die hard United fan, he takes all things MUFC far too seriously and hopes that he has found a home to vent and rant with Can They Score. Check out his blog, Debatable Decisions, and follow him on Twitter here.