UTD Unscripted: The Peak of our Powers
I didn’t score too many goals for United but, if someone comes up to me to talk about football, you can quite often count on them saying: “What about your goal against Arsenal?”
They mean the chip at Highbury, and I always like to say: “Yeah, but I like the one in the Champions League semi-final as well.”
They’re always like: “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” I think the way the tie went overall, with Ronny scoring a couple of worldies, means that my goal was ever so slightly overshadowed in the grand scheme of things.
Still, to say you scored a Champions League semi-final winner, it’s not a bad thing, is it?
When you look back at that period between 2007 and 2011, our form in the Champions League underlined just how good a squad we had put together. Semi-finalists, winners, finalists, quarter-finalists, finalists, all in the space of five years.
Going into the 2008/09 semi-finals against Arsenal, we were reigning European champions, reigning Premier League champions and we’d already become world champions earlier that season. The more successful we became, the more it worked in our favour. We were officially the best team in the world, which filled us with huge confidence, and the teams that were facing us knew how good we were too.
They knew the counterattacking speed we had, they knew the defensive record we had, all those things, the success, the runs we’d been on. You weren’t winning games before they were played, but all those big games weren’t one-offs, they were happening so often that the players’ confidence was growing and growing. They were becoming the norm. When you look at the team, you had Tevez coming in, Berbatov, Giggs, Scholes on the bench… you know? The quality we had in the squad was crazy, but that’s what we knew we needed. The manager always said that if he didn’t have that competition in the squad then we were never going to be successful.
When we were paired with Arsenal, we were confident because we felt that their style of play played into our hands. The big thing for us was knowing that Arsenal liked to keep possession and they felt confident they were going to dominate teams with possession, whereas we were confident because we knew we had the pace and power to hurt them on the counterattack. You’re looking at Rooney and Ronaldo in particular at that time, on top of their game, and the energy, industry and quality of Fletch, Ji, Anderson, Michael Carrick, all those boys in and around the middle, aiming to win the ball back and carry us up the pitch. It was a great asset to have. Defensively, the players and the keeper we had, the calmness that Edwin gave everybody to know that if the defence was breached, he was going to help us out like he had so many times. The confidence that the team had generally was based on knowing that we were going to be creating and scoring in the game. We knew if we kept clean sheets then they would be huge for us because the attacking talent and the speed we had, we were going to be able to hurt teams.
It wasn’t as though there was much travelling involved because it was a Premier League team, but generally people would see it as a bit of a disadvantage to have the second leg away from home, so it was important to give ourselves an advantage to take to the Emirates Stadium.
We were mindful of that and made a really strong start at Old Trafford. We overran Arsenal at times and they were very reliant on Manuel Almunia in goal. He made a lot of really good saves early on before, about 20 minutes in, we took the lead. It was constant pressure from us and when Arsenal had half-cleared one of our corners, the ball ended up back with Carras inside the penalty area. He crossed from the left, it deflected off an Arsenal player and bounced across the six-yard box. Because the corner had been cleared, just like we would have done, Arsenal had automatically gone into the mindset of: ‘let’s push out, clear the box immediately,’ but because we’d got possession back quickly, Carras had drawn a few players towards him, crossed it, and after the deflection there were no Arsenal defenders to be seen as the ball falls towards me nicely.
In that moment, you don’t have time to think about much.
Nah. It’s sat up too nice.
So I smashed it on the half-volley, Almunia got a touch on it and thankfully it ended up in the roof of the net. Next thing I know, I’m celebrating in front of the Scoreboard End. Within the space of seconds I had Rio and Fletch hanging off me, jumping all over my shoulders.
Going back to that chip at Highbury, for a moment, people always remember my celebration that night, and I know what they mean. At the time, if the cameraman had panned out, you’d have seen my arms hanging out a bit. It was an awful impression of Eric Cantona when he scored the chip against Sunderland and just stood still, but it didn’t look like that. The cameraman just focused on my face, so you couldn’t really see what I was trying to do! Halfway through, I realised that it was so late in the game, the lads were too tired to come over, so I abandoned the plan and ran to them to celebrate instead.
After that, having Rio and Fletch hanging off me wasn’t bad by comparison!
At the time you realise it’s a really special moment in your career, in your life, I suppose, but that quickly switches off and you’re only thinking about keeping that clean sheet and pushing to score more goals. Thankfully we did keep the clean sheet without much trouble at all, as I remember, but we couldn’t find that second goal despite dominating.
Even if we hadn’t gone into the second leg with a lead, we’d still have been confident going down to the Emirates, but psychologically it did help that we had the goal. Arsenal, being at home especially, would want to dominate, would want to put a lot of pressure on us and ideally we could break and counter on them.
When we looked back at the missed chances, there was a little bit of tension left in the tie because Arsenal were still a good team. They had days when teams couldn’t live with them. We all knew the situation: we’re not fully through here yet. They had players who could hurt you. On any given day they were going to be a test, but we had that confidence that we could score on the break, especially against Arsenal at that time. Physically we thought we had an advantage too, and those little things added together just gave us the edge.
We had so much experience of playing and winning big ties by that stage. I always remember the manager talking about when we played Real Madrid in 2002/03, myself, Wes, Rio and Mikael were in the back four, the manager spoke about the age of us and the experience we needed to take from losing that tie. Every time we lost a final or lost a big game that made us miss out on winning a trophy or winning the league, the message was the same.
“Remember how you feel in this moment and take it into the next campaign. Don’t have this feeling again.”
Those words go through your head before the next big game, and eventually you’re just conditioned for these situations. So forget that we should have put the tie to bed in the first leg; by the time we lined up at the Emirates, we were in exactly the right place to do what we did.
Their possession on our terms.
They looked very good, and they usually ground teams down, time after time, but we were ready for it. We were used to it, we could cope with it. We’d coped with it against better teams than Arsenal, like Barcelona the year before, so going into the tie with an edge, that was key for us.
The Arsenal fans were well up for it beforehand. Then, inside 10 minutes, they were shell-shocked. Champions League nights are always special, home or away, and the Emirates was packed but the noise virtually vanished when Ji scored inside the first 10 minutes. The whole place was just deflated.
Our confidence just kept growing.
A couple of minutes later, Ronny won a free-kick over 40 yards out. At the time, you’re thinking: From that distance, does Almunia even need a wall? But they put up a two-man wall, if I’m not mistaken, and I did my regular little bit where I was part of the wall. Ronny wouldn’t aim for me, but I was a guideline for him, in terms of where I’d be standing in reference to the goal and so on.
I’m stood there, thinking: This is a LONG way out.
But as Ronny has always shown, he’ll back himself to hit the target from anywhere and the problem for the goalkeepers is that there’ll be a bit of movement on it. He took it on, the ball fizzed past my head and, as I turned away, I just managed to get a glimpse of it going in the net. I’m claiming an assist for that one!
The game was just perfectly set up for us. Every time Arsenal ventured forward, we’d let them have possession until we were ready to pounce and try to counter-attack. From one corner, the ball was cleared to Ronny.
One touch, he backheels it to Ji.
Ji releases Wazza.
He crosses for Ronny, who smashes it into the roof of the net.
The whole thing took about 10 seconds, one end to the other, and what I remember most vividly is that Ronny didn’t even break stride. It was all done full speed, full stride, no stopping to change feet, then the ball’s flying into the net. That’s where you’re talking about the understanding of the players. The minute Ronaldo got the ball on the edge of the box, it was like the trigger for all our players.
You could see all the fear and tension that came into Arsenal. In that moment, they know what’s happening. Remember the Rooney-Ronaldo goal at home to Bolton a couple of years earlier? That goal, when teams watched that, they knew what we were capable of. Unless they were able to stop Ronaldo or Rooney or whoever in that moment – and we’d gotten used to teams fouling them in these situations – then we were going to get a chance.
Lots of teams had speed, but that timing of when to pass, where to pass… that goal was just a perfect example of what we’d become. The speed, the decision-making… it was surgical. Clinical. Clean cut.
In the last 10 minutes, Fabregas gets played through on goal, bouncing ball, and Fletch catches him and executes this brilliant challenge where he hooks the ball away from the side with his heel. It was an unbelievable tackle. Literally, it turned out, because the ref didn’t believe that he was capable of doing it without fouling Fabregas. The challenge was that good that it just wasn’t believable, so he was sent off and he was banned from the final.
I’m not going to lie, it did take the edge off things for us. It was a blot on the night of such a big result. A big win in a European semi-final away leg, being so comfortable, but we were all gutted.
The game was done, but you’re never going to get Fletch to pull out of a tackle like that.
Man… it’s hard to explain how badly I felt for him. Fletch was my mate, he was such a big part of the dressing room, but he was also so crucial to how the team was playing at that time. The quality he was bringing in, the complement between him and either Carras, Anderson, Scholesy or Giggsy, he complemented everyone so well. It had a big impact on the final because of how Fletch was playing for us at the time and the manager had to change things around a bit.
To be robbed of a final like that, we were all gutted for him. That only grew over the next few weeks in the build-up to the final itself, where we’d be facing Barcelona in Rome. Even without Fletch, we still looked around, saw the strength of the squad and we thought we could still be successful, like the Treble winners had done in 1999 without Keane and Scholes. It had been done.
Facing that Barcelona team was tough, but we all felt at the time that we had the players to beat them. We went into the final very confident, but that Barca team was special. Everyone knows the players they had, particularly the attacking players with Messi central to everything, Iniesta, they were just very special. They got the better of us in Rome and they were even better when we faced them in the final again at Wembley two years later.
Three finals in four years. It was unfortunate timing for us to come up against that particular Barcelona side at that time, but it’s only when you properly look back on those moments in your career that you realise the heights we’d reached.
That was hugely satisfying, not just for me, but obviously for my family, my friends around me, my coaches from my younger days, all the people that felt they helped play a part along the way; when they see you playing in a Champions League final, it’s so satisfying for a lot of people. Those are the moments you look back on and think: Yeah, they were special times.