‘A thing of footballing beauty’ from Manchester United
With a Champions’ League semi-final with Schalke 04 impending, we look back at a modern classic at the same stage of this competition; a game where Manchester United displayed their brand of blistering counter-attacking football for all of Europe to see – Arsenal being the victims that day, perishing to a 3-1 defeat. The third goal is what we’ll focus on, however, purely on the basis of the sheer beauty of the move. It was a moment of attacking football at its sumptuous best; nine seconds, three players, one goal.
The tone was set, in truth, for a moment like this in the first eleven minutes. Manchester United, with a 1-0 aggregate lead coming into this second leg clash, had ripped and shredded their opponents in their own backyard in the opening quarter of an hour with a hint of savagery as if this were a chapter in Lord of the Flies. Park ji-Sung and Cristiano Ronaldo had applied the damage. The tie was already over by this stage; Arsenal simply had no answer to the early barrage. “We were caught by a team that has an art to kill and take advantage of every mistake you make,” a shattered and beleaguered Arsene Wenger said after the game.
United were really that good and it was made all the sweeter that it was against their rivals, a side in the middle of a trophy drought, in a game that promised so much. For The Gunners, it was a case of so close, yet so far. But United, sensing the occasion, made few errors and punished Arsenal, pushing them to the brink as BBC’s Phil McNulty observed: “Man Utd brushed Arsenal aside with a savagery, speed and ruthlessness that had plenty of observers labelling it as football’s equivalent of Manny Pacquiao’s demolition of Ricky Hatton.”
With much thanks to Mancunian Tactics for creating the image
<Figure 1> That counter-attack (gif animated image)
An hour had passed. Despite the comfort of a 3-0 aggregate lead, Arsenal were determined to salvage something at the Emirates. They forced a corner, but little would they know of the consequence of the set-piece. A meek cross was cleared away from Nemanja Vidic – and Ronaldo pounced on the loose ball, with an impudent, yet rather nonchalant, flick that a lurking Park received with much grace. The next nine seconds would go on to be remembered and revered even today as one of the greatest and audacious counter-attacking moves in the game. It is worth saying that Ronaldo picked up the ball well into his own half, 20 yards or so from his own goal.
The South Korean midfielder found Wayne Rooney and he took the ball, head down in assault of the Arsenal goal. Meanwhile, lurking on the right was Ronaldo, racing down the length of the field with much verve and urgency and had found himself in a good position – Rooney duly released him and the Portuguese winger finished expertly with great calm and composure past Manuel Almunia. Sir Alex Ferguson cut an excited figure and said post-match: “Arsenal were throwing everything forward and we caught them on the counter-attack and the speed of play was fantastic.” McNulty eloquently summed this moment up well: “United’s third goal must be beyond dispute as a thing of footballing beauty. It was a portrait of the game at its finest.”
Manchester United are so potent on the break, and this was a reassurance of just how deadly they can be – but pundits alike had soon outlined this tactic as an asset of Manchester United’s game that can prove decisive against Barcelona in the final; that wasn’t to be. But for United’s shortcomings in the 08/09 campaign in Europe, this game, this moment, should still be celebrated just for the sheer brilliance, sheer madness of it all. And it is, still. Schalke, beware.