The Champions League: The poisoned chalice for Alex Ferguson?
The look on his face as he charged from his seat towards the assistant on the touchline said it all. It was a look of a man who had run the long hard miles only to see the ground beneath him collapse on the home stretch. He had brilliantly outmanoeuvred his long-time friend and adversary Jose Mourinho to plant a foot in the next round, but Lady Luck had cruelly snatched his victory away from him. But even as he protested the injustice in vain, he knew Cuneyt Cakir had just delivered the hammer blow on his dream for another long year by sending Nani off. The Champions League had yet again proven that for Ferguson, there is many a slip between the Cup and the lip.
Everything seemed to be going to plan. The crowd was playing its part in serving up a grand atmosphere. The players responded in kind, every part fitting nicely into Ferguson’s well-oiled machine as United coiled like a spring without the ball and sprang with venom into all the available spaces with it, bustling and unsettling Real Madrid out of gear. The crowd had showered their prodigal son with the loudest affection and seemingly a bit affected by the occasion, Ronaldo was having a quiet night by his standards. Meanwhile, Ryan Giggs was rolling back the years, keeping Coentrao in his pocket at one end and evading him at the other, providing passes to the pacey Nani and Welbeck along with Van Persie to stretch the Madrid defence. The goal also came at a crucial time and Old Trafford had started to believe; then the moment which would change the entire complexion of the tie came. Shell-shocked by the turn of events, United withdrew deep into their shell in reaction and in those few minutes of weakness, Mourinho played his trump card in the form of Luka Modric, who aimed a brilliant shot from 20 yards to give Madrid the advantage. Manchester United responded as Manchester United always do, but the numerical disadvantage and Diego Lopez’s rescue act were gaps too far to bridge. A lively display had met with a sudden death. It was a tale of missed opportunity which United have been painfully acquainted with – although in different forms – in the past as well.
Nani’s sending off would have evoked a sense of déjà vu among all United supporters as the mind drifted back to the quarterfinal tie against Bayern Munich in 2010, when a team charged up by an electric atmosphere overturned a 2-1 deficit to blow Munich to smithereens in the first 40 minutes, only for a careless Carrick to gift the Germans an away goal. United were still in the ascendancy till about 10 minutes into the second half, when the young and impetuous Rafael was awarded a second yellow for tugging on Ribery as he broke away. The game turned on its head at this moment and into a nightmare for the home team as a sumptuous volley by Robben sealed the tie on away goals.
In fact, German opposition have provided the most painful memories for Sir Alex in the Champions League. Manchester United led Bayer Leverkusen three times in their 2002 semifinal tie, but some careless defensive errors in the 1st leg at home led to their downfall. Arguably the darkest Champions League night ever for Ferguson was the semifinal against Dortmund in 1997 – a defeat so traumatic that it is believed to have led Eric Cantona to consider retirement. United somehow contrived to miss a hatful of presentable chances after going behind early in the second leg and Dortmund progressed to the final where they subdued Zidane’s Juventus to claim the trophy. Manchester United’s story of missed opportunities in Europe can never be complete without the tragedy of the Busby Babes, who would definitely have challenged Real Madrid’s then-total domination of Europe in the normal course of events. But this was not to be because of the freak accident which annihilated perhaps the greatest group of players ever to have been assembled in England.
Yet, in the aftermath of the defeat to Madrid, Manchester United need look nowhere other than their own history for motivation. The unfortunate demise of the Busby Babes served as the inspiration behind Sir Matt Busby’s great ambition as he began his quest to create another great team that, led by the trio of Best-Charlton-Law, would 10 years later bring home their first European Cup. The defeat to Dortmund was the launchpad for the famous triumph two years later in the treble-winning season in which a hungry United led by the indomitable Roy Keane tore apart Juventus after going behind early in the semifinal second leg. The entire history of the club is strewn with such examples of resilience and defiance, qualities abundantly available in the present team as well.
There is a basis of a squad here which can soon become one capable of winning the Champions League. A group of young players who have been around for a few years now have gained in maturity and are beginning to cut it on the biggest stage, while the experienced ones are still going strong. Some like Michael Carrick have belatedly come of age at the European level. Summer signings van Persie and Kagawa will look back on this tie with some regret, but will be the main factors in next year’s challenge. The important players (read Rooney) will hopefully be retained in the summer and a couple or so added to augment the weaknesses. In the meantime, United should have no problem shifting focus to the domestic front, where there is all to play for.
One thing is certain and that is that Ferguson will never forget this defeat, as he will never forget the ones to Dortmund in 1997 and Milan in 2007. Sir Alex has always believed that he should have delivered more Champions League trophies during his tenure than the two he has won. If, the way he did after those ties, he is able to convert this latest setback into what may be his last Champions League title, it would be the legendary manager’s crowning glory.