United 4 Real Madrid 3: A night to remember
Today (Thursday) marks the anniversary of one of Old Trafford’s most famous 21st-century matches – a 4-3 thriller with Real Madrid that had lasting repercussions for Manchester United and English football.
The home leg of this Champions League 2002/03 quarter-final produced only the Reds’ second victory over arguably the European game’s most gilded name, but sadly saw Sir Alex Ferguson’s men ultimately exit the competition after failing to overturn a 3-1 reverse from the first leg at the Bernabeu.
But nevertheless, a pulsating contest enraptured Old Trafford and the watching global audience. Before the evening was over, Brazilian centre-forward Ronaldo had produced one of the most superlative individual performances in M16’s long memory, while David Beckham's dramatic cameo won United the match and provided his final European minutes for the club.
If reports are to believed, this was also the contest that convinced Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich – a spectator in the crowd that night – to plough his money into football, and Chelsea, which would later lead to a small revolution within the English game.
It was the end of an era, but what a way to finish…
United were without the suspended Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, and Ferguson opted for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ahead of Beckham on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation. Youngsters Wes Brown and John O’Shea took the right and left-back slots, respectively, while Juan Veron, who had been injured, was the most advanced member of a three-man midfield behind striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The Madrilenos offered a surprise start to Scouse emigre Steve McManaman, while Guti came in for legendary forward Raul, who was in hospital for an appendix operation. Alongside McManaman in attack were a handy trio of recent Ballon d’Or winners: Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo.
United: Barthez; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O’Shea; Keane, Butt, Veron; Solskjaer, van Nistelrooy, Giggs.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Makelele, Guti; Figo, Zidane, McManaman; Ronaldo.
With two goals required to put United ahead in the tie (on away goals), the Reds leapt out of the traps, but it was Real who struck first, unearthing a goal of devastating simplicity. Guti’s excellent pass found Ronaldo to the right of the United box, and his powerful low drive caught Fabien Barthez out at his near post.
United levelled before half-time through van Nistelrooy, but the reigning European champions restored their lead soon after the break when Ronaldo tapped home Roberto Carlos’s cut-back. The see-sawing continuing as United responded, just minutes later, via an Ivan Helguera own goal, but Ronaldo completed his hat-trick just before the hour mark with another thumping effort from distance.
However, Beckham’s entry shortly thereafter – and Ronaldo’s substitution on 67 minutes, to a standing ovation – soon turned the evening back in the home team’s favour. A characteristic free-kick and a scrambled back-post finish made it 4-3, but United still needed two more to progress with just five minutes left. Ferguson’s side would fall short, but could console themselves with a heroic effort in the face of some undoubted genius from Ronaldo and his fellow galacticos.
Van Nistelrooy shoots goalwards as United try to erase their deficit.
“In losing this quarter-final, there was still vindication of all that Manchester United have stood for down the decades,” wrote The Guardian’s Kevin McCarra. “This was a night that testified to United’s powers and, above all, to the glory of football in its ideal state.”
“I said, before the game, that the key was to keep Real out and we couldn't do that,” bemoaned Ferguson. “But we had chances – we put on a terrific show, but it was a pity we couldn't get that one early in the second half when their goalkeeper stopped the shot from Juan Sebastian Veron. We missed some chances but produced some fantastic football – I'm proud of the players."
United had it all to do after a 3-1 defeat in Spain, and suspensions for Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.
Van Nistelrooy netted his 14th goal of the 2002/03 Champions League in this match, and would finish two clear of the next best scorer, Filippo Inzaghi of AC Milan (12). Incredible, given the Dutchman did not compete beyond the quarter-final stage. His 14 strikes came in just 10 appearances, and he would end the season with 44 in all competitions – just two shy of Denis Law’s record 46 efforts in 1963/64.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
United reclaimed the Premier League title just a week-and-a-half later, thanks to Leeds United’s unexpected 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Highbury. The Reds collected our 15th top-flight title at Goodison Park on the season’s final weekend, when Beckham scored a trademark free-kick in his final match for the club, before joining Real. Madrid would be eliminated by Juventus in the next round of the competition, and the Turin side would lose out in the all-Italian final against AC Milan, which was played at Old Trafford. Abramovich bought Chelsea during the summer, and United would have to wait another four years to taste Premier League dominance – and 10 years for another Champions League meeting with Real Madrid.