UTD Unscripted: How we stopped Messi and Barca
'Don’t dive in'.
I remember those words going round and round in my head before we played Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals. I’d had it drilled into me by the gaffer. More often than not, it would be my job to keep an eye on Lionel Messi, and the instructions were simple.
Over and over again, that was the message.
Messi was only 20 at the time, but he was already one of the best players in the world. Everybody knew all about him. He and Ronny were only young, but they’d both just finished in the top three for the Ballon d’Or. Obviously we trained with Ronny every day, but this was the first time we were coming up against Messi and it was something we were excited about.
As a player, as soon as the draw is made, you’re looking forward to it. In some ways, a few of us thought it might have made a nice final, us against Barcelona in Moscow, but either way, you’re playing in the best games against the best teams with the best players. That’s what you want. If anything, as a United player playing the better teams, something else comes out in you and you step up to another level.
And that Barcelona team were another level. Look at what they went on to achieve; they dominated Spain and were the best team in the Champions League for the next three years after we faced them. We knew they were a fantastic team.
But they also knew how good we were.
You could see the team the gaffer had built was just like… wow. I’m not even talking about the defence; I’m talking about the strikers. You had Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo, just to name three. As the months went on, those three dominated the attacking side of things. We had the old boys, Giggsy and Scholesy, still doing their stuff, but some new lads like Anderson, Hargreaves and Nani. Other lads too. Ji was a joke. He was unbelievable that season. Everyone forgets Ji, so I’m gonna throw him in there. I’ve never seen anyone run as much as him, but he was quality as well. It was good because everyone played their part. In our teams, no-one would cry if they were sub, you just got on with it and wished the boys the best. Obviously you want to get on, you want to stay in the team, but it wasn’t that sort of team where someone would kick off if they weren’t playing.
We were all playing to our potential, all a great age in football terms. Then you’ve got Giggsy, Scholesy, who are a bit older, to keep your feet on the ground. They’ve been there and done it. In all, it was a fantastic squad, no problems anywhere, so family was the correct word for us. When we see each other now, it’s still the same. I won’t see some of the lads for three or four years, but when I see them it’s like walking back into the changing room. That’s good friendship, and that bond helps you on the pitch as well.
Looking back, we had a group with a great chance of dominating the Premier League and doing well in Europe. Every season, it all gets a bit serious after Christmas and you realise what you can do. That season, we were going well in the league and the Champions League. It was disappointing to get knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth, especially the way we did because we dominated the game but just couldn’t score. We knew at the time that it was just one of those days. Football’s football sometimes – losing to Portsmouth didn’t mean we were rubbish all of a sudden.
Being part of the squad in ’99, I’d ended up with all three major trophies in my first season. You don’t realise until many, many years later just how hard it is to do that. At the time I was only young. It flies over your head and you just think that’s how it is, that you can just go out and win everything. It isn’t anything like that simple. Looking back, the focus and mentality of the lads must have been second to none to win all three of those trophies.
Over the next few years, we’d done well, but 07/08 was a time when I thought: 'right, it’s taken a while, we’re here again, and we are a very, very strong team. We might be the best team around'. You’ve got to think like that. So when we pulled Barcelona in the draw, it didn’t matter, it was just one of those games we had to win. We’ve got the opportunity, the squad, the team to win the Champions League, so forget about everything else. We’re winning. No other option.
I felt good at the time. It was a good year for me personally because I stayed fit. I didn’t have any problems at all. Gaz was injured at the end of the previous season and hadn’t recovered, so I was put in at right-back, straight from the beginning.
Most of my season was spent at right-back, with Rio and Vida in the middle. Those two were different breeds, real top level centre-backs. But Vida picked up an injury before the first leg against Barca, which was a big disappointment to us all. The gaffer just came up to me a few days before the game and said:
“No problem, boss.”
It wasn’t a problem. I’d grown up playing centre-back. I’d played centre-back for United so many times that it wasn’t a problem. In my head, that was my normal position, so it didn’t make any difference to me whether I’d been playing right-back all season or not. Obviously they’re two completely different positions. I used to try to fly down the wings when I played right-back, even if it was just to make space, but you’ve got to do completely different things as a centre-back. It’s more about concentration, knowing where to be, playing with your head. I’d been playing with Rio for years, so we knew exactly what we were doing. Exactly what this game meant. That we had to be on top form.
It sort of helped us that we’d had experience of playing Arsenal in the Premier League. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger were so good, especially technically at keeping the ball – if anything, they were the English Barca. The way they passed the ball and kept the ball under Wenger, you had to be tight because they had quality players, quality technicians who could find a gap. They’d find lots of gaps, keep the ball, they were all very confident with tight spaces, nobody panicked. They’re always looking for a through-pass where you think you’re getting there, but you’re not. Someone’s running on to it and they’re one-on-one with the keeper. That’s how they play.
You have to try to get the ball out wide and deal with crosses which those sort of teams, like Arsenal and Barca, don’t like to do. They would rather come back inside and try to find a gap. So, when you go to their place, you’ve got to be disciplined, focused, but you’ve got to have the courage and the energy to go and counter-attack as soon as you win the ball. You might have one really good chance, two or three half-chances at the most.
We knew it was going to be difficult in the first leg at the Nou Camp. The thinking was if we can get a draw then great, if we can nick one then perfect. 'Whatever happens, we have to be tight. We can’t be letting one, two, three goals in and then coming back to Old Trafford and trying to get a result. That would be hard. They could easily pick us off then'. Our focus was on just being tight. We knew that we had the ability to counter-attack. For that game, that’s how it was. 'Be tight, everyone defend. We know we can defend. We know we’re not pushovers'. I’m guessing they knew it was going to be hard as well – the respect between the two teams is legendary and they’re not stupid – but of course they’re going to try to win this first game to get a lead, as you would at home.
The gaffer told me beforehand that I’d be more focused on Messi, as I was left side. I was fine with that. I was training against some of the best players around, every single day. Ronny, that season, was a joke, scored 40-odd goals. Nani was sharp, Giggsy was still doing your head in when you marked him, so you’re training against the best and that always helps. Other teams only come against that twice a season, but we were working with some of the best players in the world and that helps you. If you were doing well in training then you knew when you came up against these other players, you could just do the same thing.
We’d watch videos of the opposition before any game, then you would get individual videos as well from the technical staff. They’d tell you certain bits you needed to look at, the player you might be playing against, and that was it, really. I never watched it loads. You only need to watch it once, maybe twice, just so it’s in your head, just so you can see what they might do. You do it close to the game so you’ve got your focus, you know what he might do. You just understand it a bit more.
The good thing was, there weren’t big issues made about everything. We knew what we could do as well. The gaffer understood what we could do. At the time we were flying. We knew we were good. We knew it would take every player to achieve it – no-one could go missing – but we knew we could beat them.
So our mindset as we stepped out at the Nou Camp was pretty simple. This is the big one. It’s going to be a tough night, but we can handle it. Stay firm, stick to the plan and hope for a chance to come along.
We get a penalty straight away. Practically the first minute.
In my head, I’m going: 'pleeeease man'.
We miss it.
For a few minutes after that we stumbled a little bit. That’s normal. I just remember the crowd. You couldn’t hear anything. Rio could be standing five yards away from me, but if he wasn’t looking at me, it was useless. You honestly couldn’t hear a thing; the noise was unbelievable. Crazy noise, the whistling, especially when we had the ball. Luckily, because we’d had some great games leading up to it, we knew where we had to be on the pitch, and that was the main thing. Each individual player just had to be in the right place. Simple as that. I couldn’t shout: ‘Rio, get over here.’ None of that. You couldn’t hear a thing. So you always have to be focused, always looking.
In my head, I’m going:
The player to your left or right would understand that this was the game where everything had to be perfect. If you’re not in the right position in this game, they’re going to pull you apart. We had worked on that in the run-up to the game and that was all to do with the manager.
Another thing the manager had spelled out beforehand was: when Messi gets the ball, we don’t want him turning in to loads of space. We want someone near him. Don’t worry too much about what’s behind you. If he’s dropping a bit more into midfield then don’t worry about that, just push on, mark him. Other people are getting told what to do behind you. Very simple. Nothing complicated.
You do realise, watching Messi, even back then, is that one thing you can’t do is dive in. His ball control is unbelievable. A joke. We knew what he was capable of. It was a fact of not giving him time, making him know that someone’s always there. Very simple tactic. People think it might be some really complex plan, but it wasn’t.
Patrice had a difficult job to the left of me because Messi can pull you out of all sorts of positions. The responsibility of handling Messi was mostly, whoever is nearest to him at any one time. So, if one of theirs had run around Messi and near Patrice, Patrice would take that man and I would push in to take Messi. If Scholesy was next to him, it would be Scholesy. But in general, because he was more of a second striker, it was my job to get really tight to him and just to try to quieten him down.
Listen, with players like that, you’re not going to stop them being them, you just have to limit them and try to get them to focus on something else. Frustrate them. You have to. To be fair to myself, I thought I was pretty good at that against most players. I was pretty fast, so it wasn’t like he was going to run away from me.
Out on the pitch, Messi doesn’t show any emotion. I’m probably quite like him in that sense. I don’t want anyone to know what I’m thinking in my head. So, because that’s what I do, I’m pretty sure that’s how he is inside as well. Emotional inside. Focused. He wants to prove to everyone that he’s the best. Just because he’s not showing it doesn’t mean he’s not thinking it on the inside.
My job was to stay focused and keep frustrating him. Stop him working his magic. Great players like that, that’s all you can do. Frustrate them, try to make them have a bad day, try to make them do things they don’t want to be doing. Try to stop them from doing things they do want to do.
That’s not easy, though. People might say: ‘just send him down the right.’ Ok, send him down the right. It doesn’t matter because his start speed is unbelievable with the ball. There aren’t many faster with the ball. Small dribbles. So fast. As soon as you dive in or you’re not quite there, he’s gone past you but he’s still got control of the ball. He’s cut in and he’s gone. The way he runs, his angles, he can run at speed, change direction at speed, little turns. He’s the best at it.
As much as you’ve got a voice in your head saying ‘don’t dive in,’ you’ve got another voice saying: ‘you can have that.’
You can’t. It's a trap.
So you have to listen to that first voice and just stay on your feet.
Now, we’re not stupid. We made sure there was always help for whoever he was up against. We weren’t doubling up on him, but at the same time there was always someone close by with an eye on the situation, simply because you’d rather someone else has it than him. If he’s running at me and I’m running with him, as long as I’m not diving in, then someone else would come across and he would pass it. Ok. If he’s not got the ball, there’s no problem.
Well, less of a problem anyway. With that Barcelona team, that meant allowing Iniesta, Eto’o, Henry, Xavi or another fantastic player to have the ball, but it all boiled down to the fact that you just didn’t want Messi to have the ball. It’s not complicated.
Sometimes, you can do all of that and it’s still not enough.
During the game, you could tell they knew how they wanted to play. All they’re looking for is gaps. Find gaps, players run into those spaces and they’ve got players who can play the right pass into those spaces. We knew in advance that they would make chances. It’s Barcelona at the Nou Camp – you’re not going to stop them having any chances at all.
I think the biggest scare was a moment when Eto’o managed to get a bit of space in front of goal. I don’t know how it happened, but me and Rio both ended up going for it and one of us blocked it. I remember us saying to each other in the dressing room afterwards:
“if we don’t block that, it’s in.” The fact that we both went for it showed that determination and mental attitude we had going into that game.
Organisation is the mark of the best defensive performances. If you organise properly, you don’t have to make all those heroic challenges. Yes, you might get a couple in the game that you have to deal with, and a fan would see a big last-ditch challenge and go:
“that’s quality,” but as defenders we don’t want it to get to that point.
If nobody’s making last-ditch tackles, goal-saving clearances, amazing saves, then you’ve done your job. Believe me, you’ve done your job better than you can do.
Don’t get me wrong because there’s nothing – NOTHING – better than doing a last-ditch tackle and coming away with the ball. It feels good, but you try not to get it to that stage. You try to be better organised. Things will happen, players will get crosses in and you’ll have to head the ball, you might have to make a block or throw yourself on the line. You just try to stop it coming to that, and I think we did that brilliantly in Barcelona.
Messi went off pretty early in the second half, Henry came on. We stayed tight, managed to keep out whatever they threw at us and we all got the job done. It finished 0-0, so halfway through the tie, we were looking good. We’d missed the penalty, but we hadn’t conceded. Even though we’d missed it, the penalty was a good thing for us. I think it confirmed to us all: we can have these. It was just one incident, but it showed that we could get at them as well, and when it happens, it fills you with confidence that you’re as good as them.
In the run up to the second leg, we were still so focused. You’re only thinking about what you’re doing in training in that moment. You focus on what the manager’s telling you, what the staff are telling you, what the videos are showing you. It becomes part of you. It’s like a test and you’re just revising. It’s not until after, when all the questions come about what you were thinking then, that you realise: I wasn’t thinking. It was just focus. Focus on what we were doing as a team. That’s what we were: a team.
Vida came back after the first leg, got a concussion at Chelsea and was out for the second leg, so it meant the same again for our defence at Old Trafford. Again, no problem. Looking back, that was probably one of my best games that season, but there was one moment, right at the start, where things didn’t go to plan.
Less than 30 seconds in, there’s a loose pass towards me. Messi’s there, I go for the ball, he does me a little bit and he’s gone.
'It’s ok, Scholesy’s there'.
I can still see it now.
Scholesy comes across and dives in, brings him down right on the edge of the area.
It’s not a pen, but it’s close. It’s a free-kick on the edge of the box, we clear it and we can settle down and start again.
That was probably a good reminder of what could happen against Messi, looking back. Usually, if the ball was there to be won, I would win it, or try to, but this was a different player. It wasn’t the day for that.
'Stick to the plan'.
'Don’t. Dive. In'.
It was just a case of making him aware that whenever he got the ball, someone would be on him, he wouldn’t get any time, any joy, and it’s however he takes it from there. I’m going to do my job to stop you doing yours. After that, it’s over to you. Simple as that. No viciousness in it. I’ll just do my job and hopefully the rest of the lads can do theirs.
Thankfully, everyone did their job. Everything they gave us, we gave them twice as much back. Gave them plenty to think about.
You can see in the run-up to Scholesy’s goal; when we’re attacking, they’re worried. You could feel it at the time as well. You see them panicking, see the missed clearance go straight to Scholesy and you’re thinking: 'these are a little bit scared of us. They know what we’re capable of'.
So the clearance goes Scholesy, he takes a touch and… bang. 1-0.
What a goal.
From that moment, you just knew.
Straight away, I got that same feeling like in the Nou Camp in ‘99, where once we scored the first goal, that’s it. We’re gonna win. So when Scholesy scored, it’s like: lads, if we just keep playing the same, we’re gonna win this.
There was still a long way to go, of course. Messi, he doesn’t stop. He’s a menace. If he gets the ball, there’s always danger. At the time, I just remember thinking: 'do not let him get in any space whatsoever'. I’ve seen some good pictures where we’re both running together, stride for stride. I wouldn’t dive in, so he’d keep running the way I was sending him, but he wasn’t necessarily doing anything. We were happy with that. As long as he’s not doing anything and I’m tied to him, I’m happy with that. I’m not going to tackle him, smash him, anything like that. None of that. It was just about making him realise that he’s not going to have much space.
The game itself was very tight, very tough. Two very equal teams with lots of quality who could punish each other. Of course, both teams knew that one away goal would put us in a lot of trouble. You do think that during the game. It just flashes into your mind: 'lads they can’t score'. They cannot score. Simple. Yeah, we’re winning, but they knew they only needed to score one as well.
Both teams had chances. Ji and Nani almost scored for us in the first half, there were a couple more in the second half. Deco put one just wide for them in the first half and there was one in the second half where Henry won a header from a corner and it went right to Edwin’s hands. That was a scare. You’re just thinking: 'Oh my God. OH. MY. GOD'.
These are the fine margins you’re dealing with. Two top teams, so closely matched.
Our fans that night were frightening. Of course you’re aware of it out on the pitch. You don’t properly think about it but it gives you that buzz. You don’t want to let them down. You play your best, if not a little bit better, put that extra bit of shift in, because you understand how important it is. It had been nine years since we’d last got to the final and you could feel that in the air. All the scarves swinging around, the noise the fans made… it was just amazing.
And that roar at the final whistle. Wow. That feeling, knowing you’re going to the Champions League final, that you’ve beaten one of the best teams in the world to get there, that you’ve all done your job as individuals and as a unit… it’s just so special. Just like that team was.