The Champions League again kick-started with the 2nd round in which United beat Lille under controversial circumstances. Giggs scored the only goal of the match from a free kick on 84 minutes but the Lille players were not ready and they threatened to walk off the pitch if the goal was allowed which it was and Lille were heavily fined for their antics as United claimed a crucial victory. Two weekends of Premiership football proved to me that the title was United’s this season. On 24th Feb, United were drawing 1-1 with Fulham after Brian McBride had cancelled out Giggs’ first half volley. But, Ronaldo, who has undoubtedly been United’s player of the season, broke Fulham – and Chelsea – hearts as he scored a brilliant individual goal on 88 minutes to give United the victory. On 3rd March, in another game in which United were expected to slip up (and should have) United beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. Liverpool dominated the entire game and should have had the match done and dusted if not for United’s brilliant goal-keeper Edwin Van Der Sar who blocked efforts from both Bellamy and Crouch. United should have been awarded a penalty after it clearly looked like Saha had been caught by Daniel Agger in the box on 76 minutes but referee Martin Atkinson dismissed the claims. 3 minutes from time United were a man down as Scholes was sent off for flinging his arm against Xabi Alonso. Just as it looked like United were about to drop points, John O’Shea scored in the 92nd minute after a Ronaldo free kick had been fumbled by Liverpool keeper Jose Reina to give United the most unlikely of victories.
In between those two late victories United also progressed to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup after a 3-2 victory at Reading and United deservedly qualified also for the quarterfinals of the Champions League after beating Lille 1-0 on 7th March. After a 2-2 draw away to Middlesborough left United facing a replay at Old Trafford for the FA Cup QF, United routed Bolton 4-1 at home to maintain their lead. Cristiano Ronaldo again proved to be the hero as United beat Middlesborough through his penalty at Old Trafford in the replay to set up a semifinal date with Watford at Villa Park. United ended the month of March with both bad and good news, with both influential captain Neville and Vidic, who had been the best defender in the team out with long-term injuries, it seemed as if United’s injury worries were beginning to show but it was Chelsea who still looked like faltering as United routed Blackburn 4-1 only for Chelsea to maintain the gap at 6-points with a late, later winner at Watford.
Manchester United began the month of April badly as they lost away to Roma 2-1 in the quarter-finals of the CL in a match where they played a major portion with 10-men after Scholes was sent off for two bad tackles. The following weekend came United’s major slip up as they lost at Portsmouth 2-1 after two calamitous mistakes from keep Van Der Sar and Chelsea who had beaten Spurs 1-0 at home previously in the day closed the gap to 3 points and the critics again murmured that United will eventually lose it because of their injuries. But United bounced back in style in an European night which will be remembered by everyone for a long time and in which Roma wished they had never played. Roma, who finished second in the Italian League, were demolished, humiliated and left in shambles by a Manchester United team with a point to prove. The match started with Roma in control of the tie, 2-1 ahead on aggregate but within 20 minutes, that situation changed as a Carrick lob, a delightful finish from Alan Smith (who proved crucial after Larsson’s departure and Saha’s injury) and a Rooney goal left United 3-0 ahead but United were not finished as Ronaldo’s first CL goal of the season helped United to end the first half 4-0 up and almost into the semis of the CL. 3 goals in the second half from Carrick, Rooney and Evra and a solitary goal for Roma from De Rossi saw the match end 7-1 for United which sent United through to the semis of the CL for a date with AC Milan and also sent shockwaves through Europe.
United made little of Watford in the FA Cup semifinal as they beat them 4-1 in Villa park to set up a final clash with Chelsea, who beat Blackburn 2-1 in extra time at Old Trafford (ironically) the following day, in the newly renovated Wembley stadium on 19th May. In a weekend where Chelsea should have closed the gap within 1 point, United drew at home 1-1 with Boro on 21st April because of a rare lackluster attacking display after Ferdinand was injured with a recurring groin injury but Chelsea failed to capitalize again as they drew 0-0 away at Newcastle in a match where they just seemed like they did not want to win. The Champions League semis began on 24th April with United fielding a weakened defense against AC Milan at Old Trafford. The match began well for United with a header from Ronaldo tipped over the ball by Milan goalie Dida to give United the lead. But the chinks in United’s armour were spotted by Milan’s wonderful Brazilian Kaka as he scored within the space of 15 minutes to give Milan two crucial away goals. United went into half time 2-1 down. But a double from Rooney with the winner coming in injury time helped United to a 3-2 victory in the second half and United holding a minor advantage for the return leg at the San Siro.
The following weekend both the title contenders kicked off at the same time against Bolton at home for Chelsea and Everton away for (United on Saturday, 28th April and the title race fluctuated over the course of 90 minutes finally ending with United having one hand on the trophy. Alan Stubbs’ free kick left United trailing at half time whereas Chelsea had come back after going a goal down to Bolton to lead 2-1 at half time and it seemed both teams would be level at the end of 90. Everton went 2-0 ahead through a wonderful strike by Manuel Fernandez and Bolton equalized through Kevin Davies in a wonderful seesaw of events. But United decided that this was their season and in a remarkable comeback won the match 4-2 helped along the way by Everton goalie Ian Turner whose howler led to the first United goal and former Red Phil Neville whose own goal was United’s equalizer. As Chelsea ended their game with only a point to show for it, they fell 5-points behind United and in doing so almost conceded the league to Manchester United.
The following mid-week that should have been sweet turned bitter as United were out-classed and out-played by AC Milan in every department when we lost 3-0 away from home which destroyed our hopes of a repeat of the 1999 treble in a match I don’t want to elaborate. The only good news out of that was Chelsea lost in their semi against Liverpool on penalties which ended their quadruple hopes and also the fact that the title could be clinched the following weekend. As it happened, in the following weekend a very tired United team scraped a 1-0 victory away at Manchester City in the Manchester Derby which meant they were 8-points ahead of Chelsea and which also meant Chelsea had to win away at Arsenal to keep the title alive. In a wonderful match at the Emirates Stadium, Chelsea went a goal and a man behind at the end of the first half when Boulahrouz was sent off for fowling Baptista in the box and Gilberto converted the following penalty to give Arsenal the lead. Chelsea played a brilliant second half with 10-men and scored through Michael Essien on 75 minutes to level and should have won it through a fierce Kalou shot which was tipped over by Arsenal goal-keeper Jens Lehmann. But the 1-1 draw meant that Manchester United FC had been crowned English Premier League Champions for the 9th time and had won their 16th English top-flight title.
The last two matches against Chelsea which they drew 0-0 after fielding a reserve team and West Ham which they lost 1-0 at home helping the Hammers stay up were a mere formality as United lifted their 9th English Premier League title, all under Sir Alex Ferguson on 13th May. And Sir Alex Ferguson deserves it more than anybody as in the past three years where the fans and even some of the players lost their belief that we could win the title again, he was the only person who insisted that this team would go places after they mature and that they have done. I could not have asked for a better season when we went to the semis of the CL and put up a good fight with a depleted squad, have finished as Champions of England and are hoping to complete the Double (which incidentally would be our 4th) of the League and FA Cup the coming Saturday against Chelsea in the New Wembley.
As a British newspaper put it, “Sir Alex and his Manchester United have proved that footballing beauty can conquer the relentless beast”, the ‘relentless beast’ meaning Chelsea’s style of boring football.
Thanks Sir Alex and the Team for a truly wonderful season for Manchester United fans. Go win the Champions League next time around.