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Galacticos and Red Devils serve up classic

Jack Zorab
February 14, 2013
Zinedine Zidane and his team-mates treated Old Trafford like a school play yard © PA Photos
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With honours even at 1-1 in the first leg and an away goal from Danny Welbeck in the bank, Manchester United are in handsome shape to knock Real Madrid out of this year's Champions League.

However rewind nine years and 10 months and the Red Devils were hiding their tails between their legs following a 3-1 reversal at the Bernabeu in their quarter-final first leg. Yet that stuffing led to one of the best, craziest, most complete games of football the European Cup has ever seen, ESPN rewinds to 2003....

Champions League knockout games between European giants carry a lot of pressure for the players, it's just part of the deal. And that pressure can often choke participants and force even the game's biggest names to fail to live up to their billing.

There are, of course, various exceptions to this trend and Manchester United's 4-3 victory over Real Madrid on Wednesday April 23, 2003 is one of the most brilliant.

Although it was your archetypal 'clash of two footballing superpowers' on the surface, all the pressure was lifted from the players' shoulders after 10 minutes of the match kicking off. In those early stages one side, Real, played with a desperation not to lose and the other, United, simply desperate not to get embarrassed for a second time in two weeks.

Yet after the first goal it became a real-life Nike commercial as Madrid's stars Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane and the man who out-shone them all that day; Ronaldo, played for kicks and amusement.

Ronaldo wrapped up his hat-trick in under an hour © PA Photos
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Madrid came into the quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford on the right side of a 3-1 aggregate score after winning at the Bernabeu. It was a healthy advantage but not an unassailable one and, without their talisman Raul who was ill with appendicitis, they were there to do a job and ensure their first-leg excellence was rewarded with a semi-final berth. Their sensible heads were on.

Meanwhile, United's loss in Spain had damaged their name as a world force and had hurt those outside of Manchester as well. As the league leaders at the time - they would go on to win their eighth league title in 11 years just weeks later - United's schooling showed the Premier League it was not quite what it was cracked up to be.

If United were not to qualify for the Champions League semi-finals they needed to show guts and determination in their demise, English football's reputation depended on it. But throwing caution to the wind could be a recipe for more disaster.

However both sides' outlook altered after 10 minutes as the tie was effectively settled with Madrid 4-1 ahead on aggregate. The result was a free-flowing Madrid forcing United to play at their rhythm, a challenge the Red Devils were slow to accept but one they ended up excelling at.

There was a precursor to that first, match-altering goal which should not go unmentioned as it hinted at the improbable night which was to come. John O'Shea, given a start because Gary Neville was suspended, nutmegged Luis Figo on the left wing. John O'Shea. Nutmegged. Figo.

Two minutes later the drama really started. Ronaldo out-foxed Rio Ferdinand to stay onside and latch onto a fizzing through ball from Guti and drill the first goal past Fabian Barthez at his near post. From that point on even Sir Alex Ferguson knew his team's hopes of progressing to the semi-finals were slim. "The key to it was always keeping them out, and we couldn't," Ferguson later told the Daily Express.

Keano's hurt

  • Roy Keane felt his personal shot at playing in a Champions League final had slipped through his grasp on the Old Trafford pitch. He was right.
  • "This is probably worse than last year when we got to the semi-finals. It is worse because the years are going by. Every season you feel you have a chance of winning the competition - and it's all about winning. So when you lose it's so hard to accept."
  • "Maybe we are just not good enough. Real's quality is there for all to see and, judging by the other night, we are not quite there."

That first goal was a construct of beauty. Zidane picked up the ball deep in his half and gave it to Steve McManaman on the left wing. The former Liverpool player swept the ball forward into midfield and found Figo who touched it back to Zidane, now in an advanced position on McManaman's flank. He centred the ball to Guti, in the side for Raul, and from there the Spaniard used his left foot to curve the ball, on the deck, into space for Ronaldo to hammer home.

Madrid kicked on and United were just trying to hang onto their coat tails but they gradually gained ground. Ryan Giggs' trickery gave him space for a shot which went wide of Iker Casillas' left post. Then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer worked space for a shot which Casillas could only block. The little and loveable Norwegian was an individual example of United's increasing threat in the game.

Having been in Roberto Carlos' pocket at the beginning of the half, Solskjaer decided not to confront the imperious Brazilian in a one-on-one battle any longer and shifted inside slightly. And after his warning shot he created the first goal for his team, dinking the ball over Casillas from a Giggs through ball to find Ruud van Nistelrooy who tapped home to make it 1-1 at half-time.

Madrid retook the lead on 49 minutes, through Ronaldo, but it was down to the brilliant work of Figo and Zidane on the edge of the box. After a patient build-up, the Frenchman found Roberto Carlos' run and the Brazilian squared to his countryman Ronaldo for an easy lead. The Spanish giants undid themselves when Ivan Helguera turned a soft cross-pass from Juan Sebastian Veron into his own net just minutes later.

But that of course gave Ronaldo all the motivation he needed to complete his hat-trick in typical style only five minutes later. Claude Makelele and Figo moved the ball forward, "then came Ronaldo's piece de resistance," the Daily Express' Rob Shepherd wrote. "He picked up the ball in the United half, glided forward and then released a stunning shot which flew beyond Barthez. It was brilliant."

David Beckham curled home one of the best free-kicks of his career © PA Photos
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When he was replaced a few minutes after, by Santiago Solari, the whole stadium stood and applauded. At the World Cup a year earlier he proved he was a player for a big occasion, at Old Trafford he proved he was a player for a big exhibition also.

The hat-trick alone was enough to fill newspapers all over the world and David Beckham's chapter had not even started. Many label Ferguson's selection of Beckham on the bench for this match as the final nail in his United coffin. It could have been that the Scot was simply trying to keep one of his most valued assets in his possession for another season by preventing him from impressing Madrid's high brass first hand. If that was his plan, it failed spectacularly as the England captain took out his frustration at having to watch an unfit Veron play instead of him by scoring two goals in a superb 30-minute cameo. And of course he would join Los Blancos three months later for £25 million.

The first goal, a free-kick, was vintage Beckham. The Real defence had had trouble containing Van Nistelrooy all night and Helguera was out of ideas and so felled the Dutchman just outside the penalty area on the far right. Beckham chose to bend it round the wall and it flew into the top right apex. Casillas did not even move his feet.

Van Nistelrooy set up the winner too, racing away and dodging the last defender before squaring the ball for it to ricochet off Fernando Hierro and head towards the post, where Beckham was following up to get the last touch and secure arguably the most meaninglessly beautiful victory in Manchester United's history. Madrid were through to the next round 6-5 on aggregate.

What happened next?

The Red Devils dusted themselves off to win their three remaining Premier League fixtures to take the title off Arsenal's hands. They finished five points ahead of the Gunners and the title was assured thanks to rivals Leeds winning 3-2 at Highbury.

Despite not playing in three further matches like some of his rivals, Van Nistelrooy was still the top scorer in that season's Champions League with 12.

Real Madrid lost to Juventus in the semi-finals but went on to win La Liga by two points from Real Sociedad in northern Spain.

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