WHAT a game that was. Not classically beautiful, but exciting, completely fascinating and quite breathtaking in the way its issues and consequences reverberated right through the rest of the week.
Often, the big games can fail to deliver. Very often, the big Champions League games can be a letdown. For once, the hype merchants were right: Manchester United v Real Madrid was as epic as they promised it would be.
Post-match, so many of the key participants, or aspects, were being viewed in a different light and we were wondering how many would still be in the same place by the season’s end. Obviously Old Trafford will be there, but Tuesday didn’t so much make us think about it in a new light as an old one, from a time before the emergence of Roy Keane’s “prawn-sandwich brigade” (and more of Keano later). What an electric atmosphere, what an unholy racket. Rio Ferdinand – when he’d calmed down and stopped clapping dementedly in the ref’s face like a newly-elected member of the Bullingdon Club or a circus clown with two wet fish – said it was the most rumbustious the stadium had been. I loved the early shot from a pitch-level camera of the Stretford End looking vast and menacing. Surely it wasn’t just 1970s-obsessed me who was wondering if the occupants of the stand, to a man, had dressed in Doc Martens and braces especially for the occasion?
All of this was great for the Champions League which, after so many predictable group matches, needs the knockout games to be knockout – and sell-outs. The tournament’s organisers, I think, like to control everything. They probably reckon that bombastic theme tune is all that’s needed in the way of scene setting. Well, at Old Trafford the Man U fans took charge of the preliminaries. They gave Ronaldo the most generous and sporting of welcomes and he lined up for kick-off looking very pleased, if not very smug. Then they booed his first three touches and he was momentarily spooked. Brilliant.
Next, Nani. He thinks he’s better than he is; he should be braver than he is. He wanted to bring down that ball on his toe to look good, less Ronaldo Lite or Very Lite, but he should have gone for it with his head and won a free-kick. He trains every day with Nemanja Vidic – hasn’t he learned anything? He keeps getting picked for Man U’s crucial matches – last season’s 1-0 defeat by Man City turning the championship in the latter’s favour was another. Surely not any more, though.
How many more will Wayne Rooney play? Robin van Persie makes him less essential to the plot but surely he’s still of use and haven’t these two played well together this season? RVP gets injured and – as was proved in both Madrid games – misses chances. Danny Welbeck missed two on Tuesday that Rooney would probably have netted. So Welbeck, while not the finished article as a finisher, chases back? Rooney, too, even heading off the line recently.
It only makes sense to cash in on Wazza if you can then buy and improve, which brings us to Sir Alex Ferguson and his future plans. When will he retire? Does he need a third European Cup before he sticks his last piece of Bazooka Joe to the red-brick dug-out wall? Is he concerned his best chance – with Barcelona very likely to exit this week – might have gone? Is he worried about those spells in the Champions League when everything goes horribly flat for Man U, when Ryan Giggs starts to look his age, the likes of Nani are poncing around and there’s no Roy Keane to save the day? I can’t remember a game which posed so many questions for this great, grizzled football man.
Keano had a great Tuesday, providing us with a valid reason for watching an ITV pundits’ panel for the first time since Malcolm Allison blew cigar smoke at Derek Dougan during the 1970 World Cup. Almost as great, indeed, as Jose Mourinho who used to alarm Man U as a potential successor to Fergie with his counter-attacking and his melodrama. Well, United like to play on the counter now and wasn’t Jose charming?