This was my favourite game of all time and in my opinion, the tie of the decade.
It was a clash between the two biggest, richest and most famous clubs in world football. The English champions against the Spanish champions of 2003. It was the tie where the two clearly most dominant and popular teams in England and Spain were to finally meet in a now classic two-legged affair.
The hype beforehand was unprecedented and was more than lived up to.
This was a clash for the ages for many; Spanish newspapers bluntly declared this was the best game in the world we could possibly see.
Meanwhile, aside from the usual English media's concern over Beckham and in particular his deteriorating relationship with Alex Ferguson at the time, there were murmers that Real Madrid were interested in signing the England captain.
It was basically the two biggest names in world football playing for glory and the world's hearts.
People forget how Real Madrid truly were the 'Harlem Globetrotters' of football at the time. Before billionaires were able to turn average clubs like Man City and Chelsea into clubs capable of signing the world's best talent, only few clubs which had built themselves from the ground up with decades of history, tradition and success behind them could claim the biggest names in football.
Real Madrid and Manchester United were two such teams. But Real Madrid like now, were at another level to most clubs.
It was Del Bosque's Galacticos facing Alex Ferguson's Second Great Team. The two biggest names in world football in the Champions League quarter-final and a tie that gave us 11 goals and a hundred more memories.
The number of world class talent on the pitch (and the respective benches) at the same time was arguably, up until then, unseen. As a 15 year old at the time, I thought my head was going to explode just looking at the teamsheets and fantasising in the days leading up to the games about the talent, skill and flair I would witness.
Real Madrid had eventual legendary Brazilian world cup record goalscorer Ronaldo leading the line having joined from Inter the previous summer after an outstanding World Cup in 2002-continuing their World Player of the year summer signing arrangement.
The Galactico likes of then world record transfer Zidane, Portugal captain and pinup Luis Figo, the mercurial Roberto Carlos and club icon Raul were a sight to behold in full flow. Spain captain and Madrid skipper Fernando Hierro led the team out onto the pitch in both legs. As a defender he wasn't a bad footballer either while arguably the best defensive midfielder of all time, Makelele, gave the team suprisingly good balance.
On the Manchester United team sheet we had controversial club captain and legend Roy Keane (my personal hero at the time), possibly the most famous footballer ever David Beckham, Argentinian captain Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud Van Nistelrooy (one of the great strikers of all time) Wales legend and the now most successful man in English football ever Ryan Giggs, and the still world record defender Rio Ferdinand; which further added glamour to the proceedings.
Both sides oozed class.
The first match was officiated by the controversially retired Anders Frisk and the second leg at Old Trafford by probably the greatest referee of the last decade, Pierlugi Collina. Quite simply, everything was in place for a cracking contest—World Class players, managers, stadia and referees.
And the matches themselves were breathtaking.
How it Played Out
From the onset, it was clear both teams were advocates of an attacking football policy in keeping with their tradition, popularity and class.
But it was Manchester United who found out for the first time in a long time what it was like to be outclassed purely on football terms during long portions of the first leg. Twenty-five year old Raul was lethal in front of goal, bagging a brace.
Alex Ferguson's answer to Real's creativity in midfield was to field both Butt (whom Pele famously called the player of the 2002 world cup) and Roy Keane as holding midfielders.
Figo chipped over Barthez (...oh how we laughed at Barthez over the yers) in a moment of sheer audacity. Wes Brown had a panic attack seeing Ronaldo come at him, full speed, in his prime. A penalty could easily have made the second tie redundant.
Van Nistelrooy who went on to attain a club record of 44/52 matches that season kept United in the tie but in truth it was Paul Scholes and the substitution of Mikael Silvestre for John O'Shea that kept United in the tie. You have to believe me when I say O'Shea was a world-class attacking left-back in his debut season and so he proved over both legs, memorably (for me as an Irishman) nutmegging Figo.
Scholes, typical of the temper of the man, was to mss the all important second leg through suspension.
The first leg was brilliant. The second leg reinvented the wheel. It is said Roman Abramovich watched this match and made up his mind to ruin football by buying a football club having been so impressed.
The match had everything.
Ronaldo put in arguably one of his defining performances scoring a hat trick at Old Trafford. He left to a standing ovation from the home crowd. David Beckham was dropped for Solskjaer who played a blinder himself and was unfortunate not to be on the scoresheet.
By halftime I distinctly remember the late George Best looking crushed in studio. United now needed three goals to go through and provided Ronaldo, Zidane and co. couldn't fashion another goalscoring opportunity-which barring a sudden bout of typhus in the away dressing room didn't seem likely.
But United, in a testament to the never-say-die attitude of that team (which helped them somehow claw back Arsenal in the PL race that year), kept going. David Beckham's cameo off the bench was in my opinion the best I've seen him play since and it was all in anger at his manager too.
Everytime Madrid threatened to pull away United replied with a goal and in Helguera's, case an own goal. It was end to end stuff as Ronaldo's opener had forced Fergie to throw the kitchen sink at Madrid.
With United's fourth goal, Madrid were on the ropes having also taken off Ronaldo and the strangely impressive ex-Liverpool favourite Steve McManaman for Solari and Portillo.
Unfortunately, as a United supporter at the time (Roy Keane's, best Irish player of his generation-go figure) it was not to be. Madrid progressed but the 180 minutes we had witnessed were a gift from the gods.
What hapened next
Madrid were to be knocked out by Juventus in the semis, suffering a 3-1 thrashing in Turin in the second leg. Ironically Juventus themselves had been soundly beaten home and away by United in the second group stage.
The signing of David Beckham that summer was to prove the Galactico that broke the donkey's back at the Bernebau. The firing of Del Bosque, exiling of Hierro and and sale of Makelele to Chelsea were to proove disastrous and in hindisght just as crazy as it sounded at the time.
Further, Carlos Quieroz, United's assistant manager was hired as Real Madrid coach (cynics said he was hired as Beckham's translator) and a painful decline started from the pinnacle of world football circles which ended with the ignomonius departure of the galacticos policy mastermind himself, Florentino Perez three years later.
Alex Ferguson was to eventually go on to replace Beckham with Christiano Ronaldo, a little known teenager from Sporting Lisbon. Veron was to be sold to Chelsea that same summer. He never did find the form again that made him one of the world's most coveted players at Lazio . Barthez was to never play again for United after the second leg. He soon left for Marseille finding success there. Solskjaer was to become massively injury prone as he finally became a first team regular. Except he wasn't a regular because he was always injury prone which led sadly to his retirement.
United like Madrid were to suffer themselves for three years as part of the transition period to Ferguson's third great team. But whereas United did pick up the odd trophy in the meantime, Madrid were to enter an embarrassingly barren run in terms of trophies.
But perhaps the team that benefited most from Madrid's decline was neither Juventus or United but Milan, who were to dominate European football in the mid-noughties under Ancelotti. Starting with the same 2003 CL title both United and Madrid had failed to win.