Fergie Time on the Pitch, Ole at the Wheel: Man Utd Dream Again
20 years on, the man who secured the Red Devils’ ‘impossible dream’ helmed over a United miracle in Paris.
It’s the 26th of May, 1999.
Manchester United, facing Bayern Munich, have just levelled the UEFA Champions League final with a stoppage time goal from Teddy Sheringham.
With a minute left on the clock, David Beckham – provider of the equaliser – whips in another corner. Sheringham nods it on. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer thumps it into the roof of the goal.
The most astonishing comeback is complete. Manchester United are champions of Europe.
Nearly 20 years to the day, the Red Devils pulled off another miracle, this time at the home of Paris St-Germain, to become the first team in European Cup history to overturn a 0-2 deficit at home to win a knockout tie.
The man who had applied the finishing touch on that 1999 evening in Barcelona was now camped in the dugout, in a job he’s temporarily held for four months – and is surely set to make permanent now.
How The Stage Was Set
To many a loyal United supporter, it really wasn’t. Trailing 2-0 from an abject performance at Old Trafford three weeks earlier, no one was giving the Manchester club a shot at revival.
That said, there was no shortage of storylines coming into the French capital.
Be it Angel di Maria’s mocking celebrations in the first leg, or Paul Pogba’s late red card, the tie carried undertones to it – subtle, or otherwise.
The drama was compounded by the injury crisis that both teams were faced with.
PSG were without Neymar, and unlikely to call upon the services of Edinson Cavani.
The Mancunians had a crowded house in the physio’s room – Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Alexis Sanchez were all ruled out, and Eric Bailly joined them when he limped off 36 minutes into the night.
All of that – plus a deficit never before overturned by a visiting team in 64 years of European club competition – meant United were heavy underdogs at the Parc des Princes, and not really in the reckoning.
The Men Who Made It
It’s impossible not to immediately think of Romelu Lukaku when one considers the players who affected the outcome.
The Belgian was a centre-forward in the truest sense, pouncing on two errors for the first-half strikes that allowed United to dream – while taking his own tally to six goals in three games, a hat-trick of doubles.
Yet there was more to the 75-million-pound man.
Lukaku played a more dynamic role by creating chances from the wing. He also showed his commitment to the cause by dropping into defense in the dying stages, despite previously rolling his ankle.
At the other end of the pitch, Kylian Mbappe – the lone soldier of PSG’s famed front three – thrived too. He snuck into dangerous positions and wriggled into the box repeatedly despite United opting, at times, to ‘park the bus’.
Had the French teen sensation not slipped when faced with a one-on-one opportunity in front of David de Gea in the second period, the story could have been entirely different.
Mbappe aside, Julian Bernat was another Parisian player who could feel hard done by the result, having contributed to the cause at both ends of the pitch.
United’s central players – defensive as well as midfielders – were impressive too. The defense cleared 26 balls and blocked 13, while Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay pressured their PSG counterparts into uncomfortable situations.
A special shout-out is also due for captain Ashley Young, effective in intercepting PSG attempts and building those for United in equal measure.
And how can one not mention Marcus Rashford, who displayed nerves of steel in converting his first spot-kick in any competitive game for the club to clinch the miracle of Paris.
Surely, his Norwegian boss was reminded of his own exploits!
The Man in the Middle
After Daniele Orsato’s bizarre performance in the first leg, football fans, including myself, were left perplexed at the Italian referee’s yellow card decision-making as well as his gradual loss of control over the game.
Everyone hoped for a less controversial decision maker this time. However, as luck would have it, Damir Skomina would manage to outdo even his Italian counterpart in the French capital.
Even more strange was the fact that the Slovenian had actually done a decent job managing a match that was at times scruffy and stop-start.
The real storm, of course, only hit at the stroke of the 90th minute – when a shot from United substitute Diogo Dalot hit Presnel Kimpembe and skied above the crossbar.
But VAR allowed the referee a second look. And the slower the frames were made, the more contentious the moment became.
I agreed with the commentator who logically explained that the PSG defender was merely blocking the shot with his back to the ball and his arm came in the way.
A Night of Legends
The architect of that win in ’99, of course, was Alex Ferguson – Manchester United legend and then manager.
On this occasion, he sat in the stands, accompanied by another club stalwart, Eric Cantona. And the duo would later join the present ‘interim’ in-charge for what is a contender for iconic photograph of the year.
It was an apt capture to conclude a legendary evening in Paris.
Ferguson, seated at Parc des Princes, had witnessed United do what they did so well in his time – score late goals, ‘Fergie Time’ goals, and win on the big European nights.
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