The noise from the 76000 and odd crowd is deafening, you would not hear an all mighty loudspeaker amidst this clamor. This is the last day of the English Premier League season at Old Trafford, home to Manchester United FC. The players on the grass all have medals around their necks which is their personal trophy for a season of hard work. Two legends of the club hold aloft the piece of silverware with the crown, the English Premier League trophy. And the fireworks begin in Manchester. Yet few would have predicted these events unfolding on 13th May, 2007 when the season (at least from a Manchester United point of view) began in controversy on 20th August, 2006.
I certainly did not believe it possible that United would be crowned champions at the end of the season. The problems surrounding two of the best young players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are well documented. Ronaldo was seen winking to his team-mates after Rooney was sent off in England’s WC exit against Portugal and was almost destined to end up with the ‘Galacticos’ of Real Madrid after that incident. Yet again – as has always been the case with Manchester United – Sir Alex Ferguson came to the rescue. He sent his right-hand man, United’s assistant coach, Carlos Queiroz to Portugal to have a friendly chat with Ronaldo and his family and Ronaldo decided to stay, still the cloud surrounding him did not move and he was public enemy No.1 wherever he went in England for the entire season. That, coupled with the off-loading of the prolific Dutchman Ruud Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid and I personally laboured many doubts about United’s goal scoring abilities as well as our ability to pip a dominant Chelsea – who had further strengthened their already strong squad with German mid-fielder Michael Ballack and AC Milan’s goal poacher Andiry Shevchenko – to the EPL crown. Yet, pip they did with one of the best seasons I have personally had as a Manchester United fan scoring an amazing 83 goals (in the EPL alone) in the process.
The opening match of the season pushed out any lingering doubts on Ronaldo and Rooney’s friendship and of the United fans’ suspicious eye on Ronaldo, as Rooney and Ronaldo set each other up for goals in a 5-1 rout of Fulham, and the 76000 strong crowd cheered Ronaldo’s every touch. The Wednesday following that, United were handed a gift as Chelsea (then Champions) lost to Middlesborough away and United beat Charlton 3-0 away from home. And the winning run continued as United beat Watford, Tottenham and Celtic (Champions League) and then came the first blow. United were expected to beat an Arsenal side minus their star Theirry Henry at Old Trafford but Emmanuel Adebayor’s 76th minute strike sunk United hearts and with Chelsea beating Liverpool 1-0, both the teams were level and United fell further behind when they failed to beat newcomers Reading away from home as they were only able to salvage a 1-1 draw with Ronaldo’s leveler on 73 minutes. In the past 2 seasons, United’s lack of consistency has been shown as Chelsea whose form never seemed to dip were able to comfortably outclass United. A defeat and a draw back-to-back left United 2 points behind Chelsea and these old thoughts began to creep in.
A magnificent European night at Benfica and United bounced back with a gritty display and were able to beat the opponents 1-0. Wins against Newcastle – in the same weekend where Chelsea drew at Aston Villa 1-1 – Wigan, Copenhagen (CL), a brilliant performance in a 2-0 victory against an out of form Liverpool and a 4-0 rout at Bolton with a special Rooney hat-trick meant United were level on points but ahead on goal difference at the end of October. With Chelsea’s primary goal-keeper, Petr Cech, in doubt for the rest of the season, Chelsea’s defenses began to fall apart. At the beginning of November, United were dumped out the Carling Cup by no lesser a team than Southend United, who play first division football, after they lost 1-0 away from home but that also meant one less diversion for United as a team. A win against Portsmouth, a gritty performance at Blackburn for a 1-0 victory and another victory away at Sheffield coupled with Chelsea’s loss at Tottenham on 5th November meant United went into their game with Chelsea 3 points ahead of their rivals. While the match at Old Trafford was a brilliant spectacle to watch with both teams trading attacks and counter-attacks, the result itself did nothing the show which way the title was headed as the match ended 1-1 and United blew a chance to open a 6-point lead at the top.
Losses away to Celtic and Copenhagen in the Champions League meant United had to win their home match against Benfica on 6th December to qualify, which they duly did to qualify in the enviable position on top of their group. Everything seemed well in the league as United beat Everton, Middlesborough and Manchester City (in the Manchester Derby) to open up a 8-point lead over Chelsea who still had a game in hand but had failed to beat fellow Londoners Arsenal on a controversial night at Stamford Bridge. Then came the big surprise as West Ham under the newly appointed Alan Curbishly (who took over from Alan Pardew) beat United 1-0 at Upton Park but a comfortable 3-0 victory away to Aston Villa meant that, with half the season gone United were leading Chelsea by 2 points. Still, with half the season remaining and having had an injury-free season so far, I had my own doubts as to whether United could keep that position till the end of the season. And with Chelsea scoring several last gasp victories against Wigan and Everton in spite of injuries to captain John Terry and goalie Petr Cech, I did wonder whether this could yet be Chelsea’s season.
Chelsea’s defensive frailties began to show and their late-goal luck began to wear out as a draw against Reading on Boxing day at home coupled with United’s victory against Wigan left the former trailing the latter by 4. And Chelsea fell further behind as they were again held at home to a 2-2 draw by Fulham as United defeated Reading 3-2 and opened up a 6-point gap at the top. On New Year’s day Manchester United drew 2-2 away to Newcastle at St. James’ Park and gave Chelsea a sniff at closing the gap. Though a Scholes double had given United the lead, a deflected shot from David Edgar off Scholes leveled it for Newcastle and United dropped two points in a match which they should have won. Chelsea (again without goalie Cech and influential captain Terry) failed to capitalize on United’s slip-up as they drew at home to Aston Villa in a lackluster attacking display.
The FA cup began in full swing on 7th January as on-loan striker Henrik Larsson got his first start against Aston Villa in the 3rd round at home in which United proved they could come up with late winners of their own as Solskjaer scored in injury time in the second half to help United progress to the 4th round. In a weekend that should have had a major say in the title race, United and Chelsea traveled to Arsenal and Liverpool, both of whom had fallen far behind the top two due to inconsistency in the opening months. After Chelsea, devoid of Terry, had been outclassed by Liverpool 2-0 in the early kick-off on Saturday, 20th Jan, it was up to United to beat Arsenal to put the destiny of the league in little doubt. An United victory looked on course as Rooney scored a fantastic header on 53 minutes to give United the lead. But a costly give-away of possession of the ball by Scholes near the edge of his own box led to Arsenal leveling on 83 minutes. Yet, it seemed United would end the weekend with a 7-point lead but some horrendous defending on their part left Henry free in the centre of the penalty box in injury time and the French striker duly converted Eboue’s cross to leave the EPL race at the end of the “crunch weekend” as it was before, with United having a 6-point lead.
A Rooney double helped United secure a 5th round place in the FA Cup as they beat Portsmouth 2-1 at home and a victory against Watford the next weekend saw United maintaining their form. As United prepared for an away match to Spurs at White Hart Lane, murmurs were about that this could be the match where United drop crucial points as Chelsea had. But United silenced any critics with a stunning display of attacking football as they routed Spurs 4-0 and left them in tatters. Reading blocked United’s progress in the 5th round of the FA Cup as they were able to salvage a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford which left United facing an extra trip to Reading.
And more follows in part 2 where I continue to take a look at this fantastic season for Manchester United.