I would like to give it a name: It is the great fortress of Europe.
Although the famous quote was coined for something totally different, it could very well express the same underlying sentiment that opposition teams traveling to Old Trafford year after year experience. Ever since Alex Ferguson took over the reins of the Manchester club, the ai???Theatre of Dreamsai??i?? has rather been a hippodrome of nightmares for the visiting sides. There are very few intimidating arenas like Manchester Unitedai??i??s abode, the Red army is at its menacing best on their own turf and the enemy is shown no mercy.
Many a legends have walked through these gates with hope in their hearts and chest bulging with pride, yet Manchester United have humbled the best of warriors into submission, most often through sheer force of their swagger and flamboyance and at times through the will of their resolve and fortitude.
Nevertheless there have been those epochal nights, when the Red Devils have found their match and given the taste of their own medicine. Those unforgettable nights when Old Trafford has risen to its feet to embrace a champion on the other side of the hedge and appreciate a truly momentous performance by someone not sporting the red of United. Perhaps the game of football was the real winner on those occasions, rather than United being the losers.
Letai??i??s hark back to some of those brilliant individual salvos at the Theatre of Dreams that left Old Trafford dumbfounded and gasping for breath.
Dejan Savicevic (Crvena Zvezda) 1991 UEFA Super Cup
Back in the early 90ai??i??s United had one of the most reliable and intimidating rear guards in Europe. The trio of Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were outstanding defenders and not many fancied their chances against them. Yet that remarkable night at the home of the Red Devils one man showed the world what class can do. Savicevic cut through the fabled United defence like a knife through butter, not once or twice but all night long.
It must have been embarrassing for the likes of Bruce and Pallister, never would they have imagined such a hiding, at least not at the comforts of Old Trafford. Itai??i??s arguable if Old Trafford has since or before seen such a mesmerizing display of skill and control and for the duration of his 82 minute stay on the pitch. That night at Old Trafford Savicevic walked on water, floated through air and swept past United players like they didnai??i??t exist.
Itai??i??s still one of the biggest mysteries that somehow Zvezda contrived to lose the game 1-0 as Peter Schmiechel played a blinder in goal. Yet one man won over all others, it will always be remembered as Savicevicai??i??s game, such a pity that only around 20,000 were in attendance that magical night in Manchester. The Serb left to a deserved standing ovation after causing untold grief to his United counterparts but in the process lighting up Old Trafford by his effervescence and magnetism.
Marc Overmars (Arsenal) 1998 English Premier League
Of all the regular left-wing opponents, Overmars must go down as the toughest I have faced. – Gary Neville.
This statement from a man who played over 600 games for United is a testimony in itself to the brilliance of Marc Overmars.
After tormenting the right hand side of Unitedai??i??s defence throughout the game, Overmars finally got the breakthrough with eleven minutes remaining on the clock. Arsenal held on, pulled themselves back in title reckoning and finally sealed the league title after United crumbled under pressure. This was to be Wengerai??i??s first trophy on English shores.
However, the hero of the day, not only for his goal, was undoubtedly the legendary Dutchman Marc Overmars, who stole the show on this epic occasion and was Arsenalai??i??s main attacking threat all game long. Gary Neville was moved to Central defence to team up with Berg, which gave an opportunity to young right-back Neil Curtis to showcase his talent. But up against him was an inspired Overmars who time and again skinned him and made it a horror outing for the youngster.
Not many have come to Old Trafford and stamped their authority on the game and never let it get away. Overmars was a constant menace, an irritation that just wouldnai??i??t go away and finally he broke through, not just the defence but millions of hearts around the world.
His combination with Petit proved to be unplayable that day as the mercurial Frenchman time and again lifted the ball over the United defence into the path of Overmars who used every opportunity to have a go at the back four. If the defenders stayed close, he would beat them in a sprint and if they backed off then he would have a run at them creating all sorts of problems.
Fernando Redondo (Real Madrid) 2000 UEFA Champions League
Not often have Real Madrid entered a game as overwhelming underdogs; this was no ordinary run of the mill game though. After United had held Del Bosqueai??i??s team to stalemate at the Bernabeau, the task was pretty straight forward for Fergieai??i??s men, any win would suffice. However, a Del Bosque master stroke turned the tie on its head as an unsuspecting United were found wanting. United lined up in their customary 4-4-2 expecting Madrid to go like for like in their favoured 4-4-1-1.
Rather, a highly unlikely 3-3-2-2 formation was adopted by the Spaniards in a bid to throw the champions off their guard. Fernando Redondo was the lone orthodox central midfield player for the Blancos supported by McManaman and Savio. The experts felt that Redondo was about to be fed to the sharks, little magician Paul Scholes and the insurmountable Roy Keane formed an irrepressible combination. Not many have passed the test; Redondo however displayed great application and produced a scintillating display that shook the team in red from their core.
It was too fancy to work, too unrealistic to have a chance of sustaining and Fergusonai??i??s thoughts echoed the feeling of disbelief amongst the onlookers.
ai???They were playing a system that did not deserve to be successful, ai???Give us a break,ai??i?? I thought to myself. ai???That canai??i??t workai??i??.ai???
Fernando Redondo the much forgotten and often under praised Spaniard achieved the impossible with supreme aplomb. To cap off the sensational, once in a lifetime performance, Redondo left Old Trafford faithful wide-eyed and shaking their heads in utter disbelief. That moment of enchantment elevated the standard of the game to the highest of the pedestals and imprinted Redondoai??i??s name on the psyche of every football fan of that generation. Henin Berg didnai??i??t know what hit him nor did the majority at Old Trafford. Real won the game and the tie, thanks to the brilliance of the one Redondo.
Ronaldo (Real Madrid) 2003 UEFA Champions League.
United were outplayed once again, this time at the Bernabeau trailing 3-1 from the first leg. However the only solace other than the away goal of course was the injury to Raul who had decimated United on more than one occasion but was now ruled out. But the Galacticos had one more ace up their sleeve- El Fenomeno.
Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker, put to bed any hopes Fergusonai??i??s side had of mounting a comeback as he scored in the opening 12 minutes to cancel the away goal and almost put the tie beyond the Old Trafford side. United responded as they always do but once again that man Ronaldo scored to stifle the response. Ronaldoai??i??s third goal finally settled the issue and indeed deserved to settle any contest.
Ai??The Brazilian troubled the United defence all night long as they simply had no answer to his off the ball movement and exceptional first touch. This was football played by the gods, sublime, surreal and out of this world. Ronaldo, however was on a different planet to all the others on that night. To put it simply he was one step and one yard ahead of the others, he was just playing a different game altogether.
After Ronaldoai??i??s work had been done, just a matter of a hat trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he was hauled in. Old Trafford rose as one to salute the great Brazilian icon who had just graced the occasion with his presence. Fantastic advert for football it turned out as United fought back to win the game against all odds but eventually lost the tie.
Kaka’ (A C Milan) 2007 UEFA Champions League
Kakaai??i??s stock had risen amongst the European elite and now he was perhaps the leader of the pack. Any doubts that the sceptics might have had were firmly dispatched as Ricardo Kaka ran riot on a beleaguered United defence already crippled with injury. After United took an early lead, Kaka took matters in his own hands and started dictating the game.
The Brazilian received the ball from Clarence Seedorf outside the box, and then jigged past three United defenders into the box with his first touch before sliding beautifully past Van der Sar with his second. It all happened in a flash that you wouldnai??i??t be blamed for missing it had you blinked, like lightning had stuck on an unassuming piece of furniture. It was one of the moments when United fans all over the world must have muttered to themselves ai???Did he just do that?ai??? Well, he sure did.
However, Kakaai??i?? wasnai??i??t done yet, far from it. If the first goal wasnai??i??t awe-inspiring enough, Kakaai??i?? made sure the world knew who he was and what he could do.
Ai??The commentator that night summed it up perfectly:
ai???He has seen off Fletcher, he has seen of Heinze, he is still going. Itai??i??s wonderful from Kakaai??i??, absolutely magical, he played them all on his own then and he beat them all.ai???
Every time that fateful night Kaka took the ball under his feet and ran at the United defence, nerves jangled and hearts stopped pounding. Old Trafford knew they were watching someone very special, someone who played the beautiful game the way it should be played. Inevitably United answered the call of duty and won the game. But Kaka and Milan were too hot to handle in San Siro and progressed to the final, eventually winning it.