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Published: 09 MAR 2005

THE LINE THAT WAS DRAWN IN THE SAND
by John Ryan

In 2000 we were the reigning European Champions. We faced Madrid at Old
Trafford after Bosnich had performed heroically to keep them out in the
Bernabeau & give us a 0-0.

Our European performances can be divided into two categories: Before Real
Madrid & after.

Between 93-99 we lined up in almost every game with two wingers chomping at
the bit anxious to beat their marker & get crosses in for Hughes,
Sheringham, Yorke, Cantona, whoever we had up front. It worked well although
we were badly hampered by the foreigners rule that usually saw one of
Schmeichel, Cantona, Kanchelskis or any other non-Englishman sitting up in
the stands. The minds wander back to the baseball capped Eric & Peter the
great sitting with long faces as our players were torn to pieces by
Barcelona in 1994.

But we adapted & learned. A season in the UEFA cup in 95-96 refreshed or
hunger for the European Cup. Eric led us on an adventure that saw us lose
our unbeaten home record in Europe, but make the semi finals of the
Champions League. We lost 1-0 away to Borussia Dortmund, but in the second
leg we gave one of the most complete & one sided 0-1 defeats ever seen in
European football. Chance after chance was missed & after Borussia had
scored the early goal, well we needed at least 3 to progress. It wasn't to
be but we at least knew we were good enough as sat back & watched our
conquerors lift the trophy.

Season 97-98 will be remembered for one thing: Losing Roy Keane. We stormed
through our Champions League group and for the first time under Ferguson, we
beat Juventus. We won our first 5 group games, but gave Juventus a lifeline
back into the competition when they beat us 1-0 in the final game in Italy.
By the time we met Monaco, our season had started to turn. After being 11
points clear of Arsenal we lost momentum. The loss of Keane caught up with
us and Monaco knocked us out on the away goals rule.

The 98-99 European season mirrored that of our domestic one. A season of
beauty, of adventure, passion, belief and above all - Goals! Those magical
things that win games. Thirteen champions league games produced 29 goals. In
one word - genius! The two 3-3 games versus Barcelona the demolitions of
Brondby and the classics against Munich all led the great Ottmar Hittzfeld
to say to Fergie on the night of our final group game "see you in the
final". He was right. Manchester United blew away every side they met by
using two wide players who provided the two attackers with the food & drink
to get fat on. Champions with a rate of almost 2.5 goals per game,
breathtaking.

Defending the trophy was always a difficult task but we went about it well.
Fiorentina beat us in Italy, but messrs Yorke & Cole saw them off at Old
Trafford. And the powerhouse Roy Keane was still at his best smashing home a
rebound that same night that showed the world we were ready to win it again.
The expanded two-group phase saw us win four, draw one & lose one of our six
games in both groups. Tremendous consistency saw us through & we were drawn
to play Real in the quarters. After that 0-0 away to the Kings of European
football it looked like we'd done the hard work. But how many times do we go
out expecting Roy Keane to score an o.g.? When that happens it's a one in a
thousand shot and we were on the back foot. Then in two minutes in the
second half we were torn to shreds by individual brilliance from Raul &
Redondo. We got two goals back but Madrid got the luck and the win their
courage & flair deserved. We were out.

Ferguson's reaction to this defeat was to waste no time and buy Europe's
hottest striker, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. It was another year before Ruud moved
to Old Trafford, but already things had begun to change. I think the belief
in our system of wide players with two good strikers (one playing just off
the other where both could score goals e.g. Yorke & Cole, Sheringham &
Solskjaer) began to fade. By the time Sergio scored for Bayern to beat us
1-0 at Old Trafford, the writing was on the wall. As we failed miserably in
Munich, Keane was quick to point out that the side needed to be broken up.
But Fergie was already working on different plans.

What Ruud gave us was a focal point up front, a one man goalscoring machine,
with great control, adequate pace and ability to bring others into the game.
The purchase of Veron was meant to be the link between the 4 in midfield &
Ruud. But in the 2001-02 season it didn't work out that way. United still
made it to the knockout stages but suffered defeats home & away to Deportivo
along the way. United were by now playing one up front, with midfielders who
could get forward or defend in numbers. It worked magnificently at times,
none better than when in the quarter final United gained revenge on
Deportivo & won in Spain for the first time ever. But what was crucial was
that the wide players were still weighing in with goals & assists. Beckham
lscored a cracker in the Deportivo away game & Ruud's goal came from a move
that started out wide. In the semi final United were unlucky. Who knows, had
Bayer Leverkeusen been put to the sword United could have taken Madrid in
the Glasgow showpiece. But it wasn't to be.

Since the semi final elimination in 2002 United have persevered with the one
man striking role. At times it's worked brilliantly. Van Nistelrooy ran riot
in Leverkeusen in the group stages of the 2002-03 season. He was
electrifying in Basle and we looked a sharp outfit. But Madrid proved our
nemesis knocking us out in style, 6-5 on aggregate. David Beckham was by now
in his final days at Old Trafford but his presence was still vital. His
crossing ability meant that without having to beat a full back, he could put
Van Nistelrooy in for a goal. If teams doubled up on him he created space or
could change it to the other flank with one rapier like pass. But then he
was sold.

In Christiano Ronaldo Manchester United acquired an up & coming star. He is
vastly different to Beckham in that he goes by players with trickery and
close control, instead of a pinpoint cross. With Ronaldo & Giggs playing
wide it has allowed Ferguson to play a three man central midfield. Since
Veron's departure, Scholes became the player to get further forward. But the
goals have been in shorter supply, most notable in the knockout games.
Rather than get the first, then go for the second, the game has focused on a
clean sheet and a one 1-0, two if possible, but not essential. It is a very
dangerous game to play. Against a well organised team it can backfire. Porto
were that organised team in 2004. By beating us 2-1 in Portugal, they made
us believe that a 1-0 would do in Manchester. The scene was set: We did get
the goal to make it 1-0, but conceded a sucker goal and went out in stoppage
time.

And so to this season. With the acquisition of Rooney, it was all set up for
young Wayne to play just off Ruud, and Saha & Smith to be the backup
strikers, a-la Sheringham & Solskjaer in 99. But it hasn't worked in the
really big European games - against Milan. But strangely, Rooney against
Milan was not like Rooney against Fenerbahce. He was back in his own half,
defending on numerous occasions last night. Against Fenerbahce he was in the
final third of the field more often than not. The whole shape of the team is
set up to not lose a goal, in 98-99 and before that, it was to score as many
as possible.

Us Manchester United fans have become more used to chess-like matches now
than the likes of the wins over Brondby, Inter & Juventus in 98-99. The big
European teams tend to force us back into our own half in our efforts to
keep possession. The way we are playing requires a fit and 100% on form
striker in the one up front role. And it also requires wide players who will
stretch opposing defenders and central midfielders who will stop the
oppositions flow. But what seems to be happening is that our wide players
are picking the ball up twenty yards inside their own half. That's fine if
you are David Beckham and you can play a ball that will disembowel a back
four. But it is vastly different for Giggs & Ronaldo: they hurt the
opposition in the final third of the pitch. They can both beat their markers
& put it on a plate for someone to score - as proved last season when Gael
Clichy was left for dead in the FA Cup semi final and Scholes was set up for
the winner.

If only Madrid had not opened us up in those five minutes of magic, would we
still be witnessing European nights like we did pre-2000? The semi final
defeat of 1997 produced two 1-0 losses. But both games were full of chances
& it was only down to poor luck we didn't score. Against Milan we had two
clear cut opportunities in 180 minutes of football. The difference is
glaring. And to look at how Chelsea defeated Barcelona in their second round
clash just reminded me of some famous European nights at Old Trafford of
years gone by, such as our own game at home to Baca in 1994, Juventus in 97,
Barca in 98 & Fiorentina in 2000. Great attacking flair, the belief that you
are going to score more goals and that your system of attacking them will
get the result. Maybe that's what we have lost, that self belief.

Too much is made of playing 4-5-1, 4-4-2, or 4-3-3. Down the years under
Ferguson, Manchester United have played all of these systems and scored
goals galore. Where I feel our European football has gone backwards is how
much of the pitch we now concede to our opposition. Against teams like
Sparta Prague, Olympiakos and Fenerbahce, we attack them, exposing their
weaknesses. Against the bigger teams, we seem to be afraid of getting
exposed. In my mind, it all goes back to that defeat against Real Madrid
five years ago. I don't think we have ever got over it and it is going to
take something extraordinary to shake that defeat off. Manchester United
became famous in European football in the 1950's, 60's and 90's for flair &
attacking play. But now, sadly, we've lost that. Hopefully, we can soon lose
the fear & bring back the flair.

John Ryan
Copyright 2005 Red11. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.

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