‘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.


8 responses to “‘A thing of footballing beauty’ from Manchester United”

  1. ryandunny says :

    I’ll never forget that night. Arsenal fans were all up for it… this was there moment… and then bang bang bang United tore them too bits. Ronaldo wasn’t that great that season compared to 07/08 but that was probably his best performance ever in a United shirt.

  2. adil says :

    no disrespect but u guys didnt tear us apart… as usual united have luck by their side and gibbs slipped up in a critical position to gift u the goal… ps before that u guys were being murdered for 9 minutes!

    • Arsenalol says :

      we were lucky and got murdered? maybe you should have shown that over the two legs then eh. birmingham are more successful than arsenal over the past 5 years.

  3. richard says :

    I beg to differ ‘adil’. Over the years the arsenal vs united affair has produced great, great, spectacles. Both sides have had their share of great performances, team and individual and victories.
    However in this match, United crushed you–YES crushed you. The mistake made all to often by arsenal fans is that they equate possession with dominance. Huge mistake as has been proven on more than a few occasions in the wars with united. A typical arsenal possession could see 15 touches, all nice to watch, most in negative areas, very few penetrating balls that get behind the united defense and the vast majority amounting to nothing. On the other hand united have been known (as discussed above) to move from their box to arsenals box with as little as 4 touches (all under full control) ending with a shot on goal.
    Adil–I have watched the game in question on no fewer than 10 occasions and yes my friend, United took Arsenal apart.

    • adil says :

      gibbs slipping means tearing us apart? almunia howler meant tearings us apart?
      i guess we tore urselves apart rather than u doing it!!!

  4. The Gaffer says :

    To be honest Adil, the manner of the first two goals does not mean we didn’t tore you apart, that’s an awful argument.

    There were other instances apart from the first couple of goals.

    Also, interestingly, you didn’t mention the third goal – I wonder why?

  5. Josh Moritz says :

    A goal that sums up the 5 period era of the ‘Rooney-Ronaldo’ attacking threat, and the last of that time. Great memories. Thanks for that blog.

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