After the first leg, with Manchester United playing a professional but somewhat boring match from the point of view of a person looking forward to watching probably the best attacking clubs going head to head, I couldn’t wait for tonight’s match. I was finally going to see all the fireworks. With the first leg of the Champions League Semi-final ending in a goalless draw, Manchester United had to score goals playing at home. On the other hand, the Barcelona after having kept a clean sheet and not allowing Manchester United to score the all important away goal, now needed to score an away goal themselves. So, this match promised to be a cliffhanger.
Making the fixture even more intriguing were the facts that Manchester United and Barcelona were the only unbeaten clubs left in the Champions League and that Manchester United and Barcelona had both kept clean sheets in their last 4 matches.
Two giants of the footballing world playing to be in the final of the most prestigious club competition in Europe. PFA Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo and energy unleashed Carlos Tevez versus World Player of the Year runner up Lionel Messi and the superb Samuel Eto’o.
It was a must win game for the domestically out of form Barcelona, if they didn’t want their season to end. It was a must win game for Manchester United having lost to AC Milan in the Semi-finals last season and especially for Cristiano Ronaldo as he had missed a crucial penalty in the first leg of the fixture. He surely didn’t want this black mark on his otherwise marvelous season.
The buildup to the match began at 11:30 pm (my time in India) and somehow whenever that Champions League programming jingle plays, it makes you feel like you are at the right place at the right time. I surely was at the right place in front of the telly! Old Trafford was packed to maximum capacity and ‘believe’ was the Old Trafford faithfuls message to their team. The scenes of so many people urging their team on were simply breathtaking.
The team was lead out by Rio Ferdinand as Ryan Giggs was on the bench and Puyol who was suspended in the first leg of the fixture returned to lead Barcelona into this crucial match. The referee blew his whistle and the game got underway. In the opening seconds of the game, Manchester United conceded a free kick just outside the box but Lionel Messi was unable to make the most of it. The first 13 minutes of the game Barcelona looked really comfortable, dominated possession and Messi was as threatening as ever while Manchester United looked out of sorts. I immediately felt that we probably needed Rooney, who was not playing tonight as he hadn’t recovered from the hip injury he picked up in the Chelsea game.
In the 14th minute, Gianluca Zambrotta one of the most experienced players in the Barcelona back line tackled Cristiano Ronaldo but ended up passing the ball to Paul Scholes who about 30 yards from goal unleashed a thunderous shot swerving high and wide of Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdez, giving United the lead. It’s wonderful how things work out in football so it made perfect sense that the goal should come from the veteran midfielder who had been injured and had to miss the 1999 final at Nou Camp against the German club Bayern Munich. Earlier in the week, Sir Alex had said that if Manchester United were to play in the finals of the Champions League this season Paul Scholes would be the first name he’d put on the team sheet. Almost like he knew something!
Five minutes later Messi embarked on his trademark run from deep, going past Scholes and Brown and drawing Edwin Van Der Sar into a fine save from the edge of the area.
A confident Manchester United started to dictate the pace of the game and Ronaldo caused quite few problems along with Park Ji Sung for the Barcelona defence. A few more chances were created by Barcelona who looked comfortable coming forward through Deco and Eto’o but they failed to get the goal.
In the second half, play continued to fluctuate from end to end though Manchester United looked the more likely of the two to score. Portuguese winger Nani had a few great chances to put United 2 goals ahead of the Catalan Giants but failed to capitalise on it.
Barcelona substituted Andres Iniesta with former Arsenal forward Thierry Henry around the hour mark. Henry, Deco and Messi had a few shots on goal but failed to find the elusive goal which would take their team through to the finals.
Barcelona especially Argentine Winger Lionel Messi played some outstanding attacking football but were denied time and again by the brilliant defending from United back line. There were 5 minutes of injury time added on and the 1-0 scoreline ensured that I couldn’t breathe!
Watch out Liverpool or Chelsea because every time Manchester United have reached the final of the Champions league, they have won and I am sure Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs would love to bring the trophy back to Old Trafford once again before they retire.
So finally, the referee blew his whistle and Manchester United created history by making sure that it would be the first all-English Champions League Final in Moscow. What a fantastic day for English football and English football fans the world over.