Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why European failure must haunt Ferguson...

ON the eve of United's game with Lille, one of the teams who ensured United did not progress through to the knockout stages of the Champions League last season, Fergie stated that United's record in Europe isn't good enough. It isn't good enough.

While Fergie is correct about this seasons Champions League being wide open, it's worth pointing out that it's been wide open since 1996, that year, the much unfancied German side Borussia Dortmund beat United 1-0 home and away in the semi final, the Germans went on to win it. That was Fergie's first big missed opportunity in the Champions League.

The following year, United under achieved again, this time against Monaco with the Reds going out on something of a whimper by losing on away goals. Real Madrid went on to win the competition buy beating Juventus 1-0 in the final.

But then for once United finally punched their weight in Europe in that never to be forgotten season of 1998-1999 when they swept all before them. Whatever else happens during Fergie's reign, that night in Barcelona will always be remembered as the Reds came from behind to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the final with Sheringham and Solsjkaer scoring goals which will be forever etched into the memory banks of all who saw that dramatic game. A few fans including George Best had given up and walked out of the stadium, not me, I'd taken my then 16 year old son to that game, we like the many thousands of Reds fans inside the Nou Camp that night were totally gripped by the tension as the clocked down towards 90 minutes, and when it did all hell broke loose as Teddy Sheringham scored an unlikely equaliser in the dying moments, we didn't have time to celebrate the goal as Ole struck European gold by grabbing the winner as the Germans were left weeping on the pitch.

The United goals came after 90 minutes, and in the very week it would have been Sir Matt Busby's 90th birthday, and also in the last Champions League final of the 1990's.

Apart from the goals, I remember looking at that clock inside the ground, as it hit 89 minutes the scoreboard showed it was 1-0 to Bayern, the next time I looked at that clock, it was on 91 minutes and it read United 2-1 Bayern. It was a football miracle if ever there was one.

The following year turned out to be arguably United's second big missed opportunity to win the Champions League with United going out to the eventual winners Real Madrid in the quarter final. The Reds had failed to capitalise on a 0-0 draw in the away leg, which is a game we should have won, and in the return leg at Old Trafford Real went on to win 3-2.

In 2000-2001 Bayern Munich beat United home and away in the quarter final and then went on to win the big one to make up their disappointment of losing to the Reds in '98-'99. United really let themselves down against the Germans that season. Collectively we got what we deserved, which was nothing.

Next came Fergie's third big missed opportunity as once again the Reds whimped out against German opposition, this time losing on away goals to the much unfancied Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-final. Bayer lost in the final against Real Madrid. United should have at least reached the final that season.

In season 2002-2003, the reds once again came up against Real Madrid, this time in the quarter final. In the first leg, Raúl González and a Luis Figo gave the home side a comfortable 3-1 win, with Van Niselrooy on target for United. The result left United with a mountain to climb at Old Trafford in the return leg. A game in which United's hopes were all but blown away by Brazilian Ronaldo who scored a memorable hatrick which effectively blasted the Reds of Europe, to their credit, United fought back to win the game 4-3, but once again we went out on away goals.

Then came United's fourth big missed opportunity in 2003-2004, as United met Porto in knockout round of 16. United somehow lost the first leg 2-1 away in Porto and so all was set for the Reds to blow away the Portuguese in the return game at Old Trafford. But Ferguson dropped a real clanger with Ronaldo, his most dangerous player as he left him out of both starting line-ups, it was quite simply a baffling and stupid decision. Scholes also had a perfectly good goal ruled out, but United had edged ahead as they took a narrow one nil lead into the last ten minutes, which would have been enough to see us through to the quarter final. Alas in the dying moments Costinha popped up late on to equalise and send United crashing out of Europe, it was arguably one of Ferguson's worst nights in European football. Porto went on the win the competition, but few would agree that they were a better side than United that season.

The following year United fell again at the group of 16 stage, by deservedly losing both legs to AC Milan. To make things worse arch rivals Liverpool made a comeback of Lazarus proportions in the final against AC Milan. The Liverpool Reds had been given a football lesson in the first half, going in at the break losing 3-0, it was the most embarrassing first half display in any European Cup final, ever, they were thrashed. What followed in the second half was unbelievable, as the Italians once again surrendered and went on to lose in a manner which in many ways was actually worse than Liverpool's first half performance.

Then last season, Fergie's men couldn't even get beyond the group stage as Barca won the final 2-1 against Arsenal.

So yes, this year's Champions League looks to be wide open, but do not try kidding us Fergie that this is anything new. United under Fergie have under achieved in Europe given the size of the club, the resources and especially when considering who has knocked us out of the competition on occasion. Let us hope that United do not slip again this season. Winning the big one this season would be a fitting end to Fergie's trophy laden time at United.

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