Three Games in May [Book Excerpt]

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Wednesday 21st April 1999

UEFA Champions League—Semi-final, Second leg

Juventus 2 Manchester United 3

Stadio Delle Alpi, Turin

Attendance: 60,806

Referee: Urs Meier, Switzerland

Juventus: Peruzzi, Ferrara, Birindelli, Pessotto, Juliano,  Deschamps, Di Livio, Conte, Davids, Zidane—Substitutes:  Montero, Foncesca, Amoruso, Tudor, Tacchinardi, Esnaider.

Manchester United: Schmeichel, Neville (G), Irwin, Keane,  Johnsen, Stam, Beckham, Butt, Cole, Yorke—Substitutes: May,  Sheringham, Neville (P), van der Gouw, Scholes, Solskjaer,  Brown.

***

ITALY HAD PROVED to be a popular destination in the  knockout stages of the Champions League for Manchester  United. The quarter finals had seen them paired against Inter  Milan with United taking the honours with a 3 – 1 on aggregate over the two legs. Dwight Yorke had scored two goals in the  first leg at Old Trafford with no reply from the visitors, before  drawing 1 – 1 in Milan. Nicola Ventola had given the Italian side  the lead on 63 minutes, just a few minutes after coming off the  bench as a substitute. United endured a sticky 25-minute period  before Paul Scholes put the tie out of reach scoring in the 88th minute.

The semi-final would see Manchester United at home to  Juventus in the first leg on Wednesday 7th April 1998. Juventus  were vying for their fifth straight European final and moreover, if  victory would be with the Old Lady, then it would see them into  their fourth consecutive Champions League final. The bookies  were in no doubt who the favourites were, and one only had to  look at some of the players that manager, Carlo Ancelotti, had  at his disposal. World Cup winners like Didier Deschamps and  Zinedine Zidane alongside Edgar Davids and Filippo Inzaghi  gracing the Old Trafford turf that evening. Alessandro Del Piero  was not in the squad as he was injured.

United started the game brightly but it was the favourites  who took the lead on the 25th minute with a beautifully executed  goal scored by Antonio Conte. Edgar Davids had nutmegged  Paul Scholes in the process after taking up possession from a  typical midfield charge from Zidane. Juventus had dominated  the first-half and the Red Devils were fortunate not to be more  than one goal down at the break. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid point of the second half that United started to take the game  to Juventus with Giggs and Keane testing the ‘keeper, Peruzzi.  Manchester United thought that they should have had a penalty  for handball as Scholes shot wide from just 12 yards. United had  the ball in the Juventus net on the 86th minute with a deft header  from Teddy Sheringham who had replaced Dwight Yorke, but  the referee deemed this to be offside.

However, just four minutes later they put the ball into the net  and this time it was allowed. Juventus failed to deal with a cross  by David Beckham and the ball found its way to Ryan Giggs who  met it on the half-volley and smashed it into the net. Manchester  United had been given a lifeline that in many ways that didn’t  deserve. An opinion shared by the Daily Mail’s Graham Hunter.  His article the following morning read, “Outplayed, outthought and utterly outperformed for 80 minutes, United were almost out  of the competition.” However, Alex Ferguson saw it differently  and prophesised that something told him that his team would  win in Turin and that Juventus may live to regret not taking  their chances at Old Trafford.

The game was perfectly set up as Juventus and Manchester  United took to the field for the return leg two weeks later. United made three changes from the starting line up  from the first leg with Henning Berg, Paul Scholes and Ryan  Giggs making way for Ronny Johnsen, Nicky Butt and Jesper  Blomqvist respectively. Juventus made just two changes with  Ciro Ferrara, Alessandro Birindelli replacing Zoran Mirkovic and Paulo Montero.

Manchester United had been second best in the first leg so  what the team needed to do was regain control and the best  time to do this would be at the very start of the match to try  and catch the Italian giants out. However, what the team did  not need was to be a couple of goals down within the first 15  minutes and that was exactly where they found themselves.  It left them desperately climbing a mountain – a mountain  where it had rained for 40 days and 40 nights and where no real  purchase could be found on foot as they slid backwards to the  very bottom. Zinedine Zidane created both chances and Filippo  Inzaghi inflicted the damage. Firstly, in the sixth minute, when  the Italian marksman eluded Gary Neville at the far post to put  the ball into the back of the net and then in the 11th minute  when a shot from Inzaghi took a wicked deflection off the boot of  Jaap Stam which sent the ball ballooning over the hapless Peter  Schmeichel. United were shell-shocked and found themselves 2  – 0 down on the evening and 3 – 1 down on aggregate. Juventus  were in dreamland and even though the game was in its infancy,  the players could be forgiven to start to think about that fifth  consecutive final appearance the following month. They would  also need to heed the warning as it was Manchester United they  were playing who had spent the whole campaign coming back  from precarious positions and snatching victory from the jaws  of defeat – and not in a lucky way either. They just did not know  when to give in. It was by design and not default, but it would  have to be THE biggest comeback of them all to make it happen.

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In the 24th minute, United were awarded a corner from  the right-hand-side. It needed a precision delivery and David  Beckham swung the ball in and it was met by the head of his  captain, Roy Keane. A beautiful deft header took the ball away  from Peruzzi and his defence and into the back of the net. Keane  did not celebrate as he ran back so Juventus could restart the  game quickly. It was game on and Keane knew it – as did the  rest of the team.

There’s a saying that when a situation is tough and when the  time comes, a man can turn the tide and win the situation. In  other words, ‘cometh the hour’, cometh the man’. It sounds very  much like a mythical or biblical quotation but it’s neither and  is commonly used in sport when the time is right to use it. The  time was right in the 24th minute for Manchester United and  shortly afterwards, a loose pass from Paul Scholes was picked  up by the ever-dangerous Zidane. Keane went to make amends  for his teammate but clipped the Frenchman and sent him  crashing to the ground. The referee immediately brandished  the yellow card. ITV was covering the game live in the UK,  and its commentator for the evening, Clive Tyldesley straight  away pointed out that meant Keane would miss the final due  to the amount of cards he had received prior to this second leg.  Keane knew it too. Lesser footballers may have let something  like that impact their performance, but not Roy Keane. On the  contrary, if anything it inspired him more. Keane had a tide to  turn and nothing was going to prevent him from doing so. It  was a masterful, determined, aggressive performance from him  – there are not enough superlatives to describe Roy Keane’s  brilliant performance both physically and mentally in Turin at  the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin that evening.

This is how Michael Walker reported the rest of the action  for the Guardian, “At two down Keane initiated an inspirational  resuscitation, rising like Tommy Smith 22 years previously for  Liverpool in Rome to spear in a header from David Beckham’s  in-swinging corner. That was rousing in itself but 10 minutes  later things got even better for United when Yorke hung in the air  to steer in Cole’s centre with his head with remarkable certainty.  All was far from settled, though, and eight minutes after half time Juventus looked about to book their passage to Spain as Inzaghi bore down on Schmeichel, only to see his shot for a hat trick rejected by a giant sprawl of a save. Almost at once Cole  was let down by poor control at the other end, as Beckham’s  pinpoint cross found him alone in front of Peruzzi. Redemption  was not far off. Ferguson, asked if this was the greatest night of  his long career spanning Aberdeen and United, replied, ‘I hope  my greatest night is to come.’”

Alex Ferguson was in fine form also when he appeared in  front of the ITV cameras to discuss the match, “It’s a proud,  proud moment for me. My players were absolutely fantastic,  absolutely magnificent. I thought the first 45 minutes was the  best in my time as a manager.”

“You said this team would score, but to score three,” continued  the interviewer. 

“Well, we gave them a start, didn’t we?” said Ferguson. “But  we recovered well, the players kept their composure, and I think  they deserve to be there. It’s a tragedy for [Keane and Scholes  to miss the final], I don’t know whether we can appeal or what,  but it would be tragic for them to miss the final. I feel for them.  It’s a fantastic night for me. This is the level we want to play at.”

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Like his captain, Paul Scholes had been given a yellow card  and would also miss the final, a final that would see them play  against Bayern Munich for the third time in the campaign.  Bayern had got through courtesy of a 1 – 0 home win against  Dynamo Kiev and 4 – 3 on aggregate – exactly the same margin  that Manchester United had got passed Juventus. Scholes had  gone for a 50/50 ball in the 76th minute, with Didier Deschamps  and the referee deemed that it was card worthy in the favour of  the United midfielder. The Red Devils would be without two of  their most influential in this key area on the park. There would  be time to address this but United could soak it up that they had  been a goal down in the first leg for much of the game and had  come back from 2 – 0 down in Turin. The spirit in this team had  not flown away.

The Treble was still on and United fans could dare to use  these words in conversations still, as they had the previous week  against Arsenal in their FA Cup semi-final. They could dare to  dream still, but could they make it reality?

Just like the week before, Manchester United fan, Andy Synnuck was there for yet another semi-final, “I travelled alone,  although you’re never alone with travelling Reds. Stadio delle  Alpi, with all its history from Italia ‘90, hopefully not a bad  omen for an English club. Outside the ground a member of the  Carabinieri (Italian law enforcement) comes up to me (I had no  colours on) and said, ‘you English?’ I replied, ‘Yes,’ and he said,  ‘Follow me’ and he started herding up Reds. I was wondering  what was going on and then a bottle smashed right in front of  us, and then I knew why. I got in the ground OK, and there was a  deafening atmosphere, with the beating drums, and Ultra’s flags  everywhere. I thought, well it’s 14 years since Heysel and they  know we hate Liverpool – not a bit of it. I remember a flag that  boldly proclaimed, ‘English We Remember You’ which wasn’t  a traditional welcome. What was it? 11 minutes in? Inzaghi had  scored twice, and I thought “Holy shit that’s it then.” Unfolding  on the pitch was arguably the greatest United performance I have  ever seen. They got back into the game and started to dictate  it (as much as you can against a talented Juventus team) and  captain Keano rises to a corner and up we went in celebration.  Despair turned to hope as the fans worked out and chatted that  another goal and we’re through, so we got another two for good  measure! Yorke and Cole’s interplay was a joy, and when the ball  hit the net, deep joy. Final whistle Becks & G Nev and others  came over to our section, yelling and screaming, kissing badges,  all sorts. The torrent of missiles from the Juve fans up in the  stands didn’t bother us, we were through to our first European  Cup final since ‘68. We were kept behind in the ground as a  security measure, we were dancing to James ‘Sit Down’ on the  P.A system. I left the ground with a lump in my throat, and close  to a tear I do admit.”

As the European campaign developed during the season,  Peter Schmeichel described the focus as becoming more and  more intense. David Beckham had stated that it was always the  goal to be successful in Europe, and the manager had spoken  about this a lot as a team and as individuals.

Now they were one game away from achieving this. “Full steam ahead to Barcelona” was how Clive Tyldesley  described it in the ITV commentary box.

Andy Cole described it simply, “Unbelievable, just unbelievable. To win the game how we won the game –  phenomenal.”

It was becoming clearer and clearer how the season would  now unfold.

Arsenal for the Premier League title, Newcastle United in  the FA Cup final and Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions  League final were standing in their way in the three competitions  they were still very much involved in as they would enter the  month of May in 1999 – the month where winners are crowned!

 

You can buy the book, Three Games in May by Rob Carless by visiting https://www.morganlawrence.co.uk/shop-2/

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