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We’ve been here before. Remember 1998/99? Yes, you may argue that the calibre of teams consisting of Bayern Munich and Barcelona (apologies to any Brondby readers) were far greater than that of the current Benfica and Swiss side FC Basel – but the fact remains – United are in match day six and face the prospect of elimination if they lose the match. Did United underestimate the group? Have we been unlucky? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow evening as it is make or break time for United.
Back in the December of 1998, not many Reds would have envisioned the ball flicking off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s boot into the back of Bayern’s net five months later. Nor would we have thought that United would beat Italian giants Internazionale and Juventus – for the latter, on their own turf – it was all about beating Bayern Munich on that cold December evening at Old Trafford. Bayern were in a better position, having beaten Barcelona twice – whilst United had drawn both games against the Spanish champions.
In a tense affair, Roy Keane broke the deadlock with a superb right footed strike ,at the Stretford End, passed the helpless Oliver Kahn. Keane’s most important goal was yet to come in the tournament, however there is no underestimating the importance of this one. Back in 1998/99, least we forget, the structure of the competition was different, with only the two best runners up qualifying for the quarter finals. United, Real Madrid, Benfica, Galatasaray, Lens and Croatia Zagreb all had a chance to qualify – whilst Bayern Munich, only needed a draw.
The German’s scored in the second half through a commentators best friend – Hasan Salihamidzic, to give Bayern that all important draw. With the final whistle blown, all thoughts turned to the other games around Europe – had United done enough? Lens lost, Benfica (although not a challenger due to United’s superior goal difference) drew following a late Ruud vanNistelrooy goal (we’ll get to him later) and Galatasaray lost. United and Real Madrid progressed as best runners up and the rest as they say, is history.
Fast forward twelve years and the format is different but the goal remains the same, qualification for the final stages in order to win the big prize – the European Cup. Two times winners Benfica have already qualified and will entertain the group’s whipping boys – Otelul Galati. However, its all up for grabs in the St. Jakob Park stadium and United will be hoping for a result that matched the 2002/03 fixture, a 3-1 United win. Ruud vanNistelrooy led the line that night and was unplayable – one of the best performance I can remember from the Dutchman. He scored twice, including a sublime dribble and finish. If Dimitar Berbatov wasn’t injured, you could see the mercurial Bulgarian popping up to do something similar (well, some Reds can) – however, it is now make or break time for United on a European front.
On paper, beating FC Basel should be formality – in reality it is far more difficult to predict. The Swiss side attacked United and turned a two goal deficit into a 3-2 lead. Ashley Young’s late header saved United’s blushes and it turned out to be a vital goal, considering the English champions lead Basel in the table by a mere point. The winner will earn their place in the final 16, whilst the loser will find themselves in eternal waste ground that is the Europa League.
Ferguson has an issue with his strike force at the moment. Will he play Rooney and Welbeck up top? Or will he opt for a 4-3-3 setup, despite Michael Carrick’s suspension. Phil Jones is continuing to impress in any position he plays in, so could be in contention to start in the middle of the park – possibly alongside Darren Fletcher. Fletcher spoke earlier of United’s heartache in 2005 following defeat in Lisbon to Benfica where United finished bottom of the group and were eliminated. I doubt Ferguson will let that ever happen again and United should be confident of victory but it is vital that United start with the best possible defensive line up, which for me is De Gea, Smalling, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra.
If you think the Allianz Arena is some way off, I guarantee you, that on that cold December evening in 1998 – the Nou Camp was even further away.