ETCHED IN MEMORY: MAN UNITED 4 - 3 REAL MADRID
I’ve wanted to pen something on this game for a while now, even before the sudden famine of new football had made everyone particularly nostalgic. That I’ve started writing it on the day of its 17 year anniversary is merely a coincidence.
Some games stick with you, others are just impossible to forget. This 2003 quarter final second leg in the Champions League was perhaps the purest advertisement for the game any of us will ever see. Indeed, rumour has it this was the match that made Roman Abramovich lust for a piece of the action, with Chelsea the eventual benefactor.
There’s so much to love that it’s hard to know where to start. Context might be - United had lost 3-1 in the first leg at the Bernebeu - but in truth nobody remembers that game. It wasn’t half bad either.
It was that result that KO’d United, but both teams had ample chances to increase their tally going into the second leg. Figo scored an outrageous goal. Raul, who missed the return leg, scored twice and should have added to that. Ruud van Nistelrooy grabbed an away goal and narrowly missed with two overhead kicks.
Remember any of that? Probably not. That it’s been mostly forgotten about says all you need to know about what unfolded in Manchester two weeks later.
United would go on to win the league in 2003, but this was not a vintage Fergie side. It was one of his ‘in-between’ sides, caught between his two greatest: the Treble side of 1999 and the double winning side of 2009. That’s not to say it was without class: any team with Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Ferdinand, Giggs, Veron and van Nistelrooy should be competing for top honours, but there was a vein of mediocrity running through it too.
The same could not be said of Real Madrid. The origins of the term “Galáctico” are disputed and its use occasionally pejorative, but you’d find few that wouldn’t fondly associate it with this Real Madrid team. Los Blancos in 2003 didn’t just contain elite players, it contained several once-in-a-lifetime talents. We’re talking Ronaldo; Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo here. Roberto Carlos, Raul and Claude Makelele weren’t far behind.
United’s mission was both straightforward and precarious: they needed goals and could not afford to concede. Despite the improbability of that, Old Trafford was expectant of something magical, as it always did in the peak Fergie years.
They started well. Ruud van Nistelrooy, in his second prolific season at the club, looked every bit the Galáctico himself, terrorising Real’s only real weak point - their defence - with his power and technique. I adored van Nistelrooy back then as a teenager and I still believe he is the best centre forward we’ve had in my lifetime. In his prime he was utterly complete with an almost pathological appetite for goals.
He notched 44 of them that season - one in this game - meaning there were few times he was outshone by another centre forward on the same pitch, which is just how he liked it. Penny for his thoughts then, as he watched Ronaldo steal the show, famously compelling the home crowd to give him a standing ovation when he was taken off after 80 minutes.
Of his three goals on the night - each their own work of art - I like his first the most. Peeling off Rio Ferdinand with a sudden burst of pace, he meets a perfect through ball from Guti to unleash an early, powerful, low drive inside Barthez’s near post from just outside the area. With that phenomenal turn of speed and thought, it recalled the kind of goal that defined Ronaldo in the first half of his career, something that I never really got to see for myself.
That was the first of the seven goals in this game, some more aesthetically pleasing than others but all contributed to a ludicrously entertaining narrative in which the home side were never really in the tie but neither gave up. van Nistelrooy bundled in United’s equaliser on the night and it was game on, at least in their minds.
But every time Old Trafford smelled a miracle, Ronaldo would bring them to their senses. His and Real’s second was an example of that vintage of Galácticos working in pure alchemy. Figo turned Nicky Butt inside out and clipped the post with another outrageous effort. From there, Real immediately reclaimed possession and put United to the sword after a blur of intricate, penetrative passing and overlapping runs. This wasn’t tiki-taka: it was a team with Zinedine Zidane at its heart and Ronaldo applying the finishing touches. Zidane, in particular, ran the show, giving off the impression this was his game - everyone else was merely a guest.
It’s fair to allow the memory of this game to be dominated by one freakishly good player. But there were so many other subplots that played a part in its legacy. Like David Beckham starting on the bench; or John O’Shea nutmegging Figo. What about Real Madrid’s glorious away kit? United lost the war here, but how this battle embodied everything about Fergie’s teams, even the slightly subpar ones, is something that shouldn’t be neglected either.
By the time Beckham was on the pitch, Ronaldo had his hat-trick before vacating in style. If for no other reason than to stick it to his manager (or put himself in the shop window for Madrid), he was brilliant, scoring twice and being largely responsible for the hope that lingered at Old Trafford right until the final whistle. His showstopper of a free-kick to make it 3-3 on the night was the player in a nutshell, and is one of the last memories I have of him in a United shirt. Of course, he would leave for Real that summer.
As a lifelong United fan born in the 90s, I’ve been spoiled for moments of unbridled success of which to cherish. Yet this game - where United essentially lost - is the one I remember with most clarity and affection. It was the match that proved that, even in defeat, football could be a beautiful thing.
Words by Dom Kocur