Well I guess, as the cliché goes; you just couldn’t write this script. 11 years after Manchester United delivered a devastating double blow to Bayern Munich in stoppage time of the Champions League Final in 1999, and thereby sealing the most astonishing of comebacks, Bayern have given Man Utd a taste of their own medicine; in eerily identical fashion. 2-1, after United had led for nearly the entire game. When Olic slammed in Bayern’s deserved winner on 92 minutes there was a creepy inevitability about it all. During my lifetime United have made a habit of pulling off seemingly impossible comebacks and, being a United fan, I have revelled in every single one. But last night I found out what it feels like to be on the receiving end. And boy, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel all that spiffing! Is this really the type of pain we have been inflicting on opposing fans all these years?! Christ. I feel like I’ve been given a flying head-butt in the chest by Zinedine Zidane. Twice.
Now, I’m very, very aware as I am writing this that every non-United supporter will be rubbing their hands in glee. In fact, you’ll probably be thinking that this poor, little glory-supporter has had it soooo easy being a Man Utd fan all these years and now can’t handle one little defeat. Good for you. You should think that; I know I would!
But I do know I am being melodramatic. All the above was written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. This wasn’t even all that meaningful a defeat. Unlike when we beat Bayern in ’99, this was not the final. It hasn’t knocked us out and it’s not too bad a result when you consider a 1-0 win at Old Trafford next Wednesday would see us into the semi-finals. You never know, it could be that United are just setting themselves up for one of their own trademark comebacks. And it wouldn’t have been all that troubling (despite having just watched United play woefully for 89 minutes) had the camera not cut from Bayern’s ecstatic players to the galling image of Wayne Rooney being carried off with one ruined foot waggling in the air. Anyone but Rooney! In fact, if the claims that United are a one-man team are to be taken seriously then we could probably afford every other member of our squad to be crippled irreparably so long as Rooney has legs to stand on. At the time it felt like the whole world had caved in on us in the space of 30 seconds and might even count as one of the most harrowing moments of my young Man Utd supporter’s life. Admittedly I’ve had it pretty sweet since I started supporting United, around 92-93. United won their first league title for 26 years that very season, the first season that I was old enough to realise who or what I was watching. Apparently I did see them win the FA Cup in 1990 but my under-developed brain didn’t retain that information. My Dad, who supported United right the way through the barren years of the 70s and 80s, constantly reminds me of how lucky I’ve had it being a United fan through the 90s and 00s. Performances like the one on Tuesday night have been rarities; although they have become more unsettlingly common this season than in others.
As for the match itself, I think Ferguson’s half-time comments to Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves were spot on. Our goal came so early (after just 11 seconds of the ball being in play) that we didn’t have to work for it. Bayern’s hapless masked defender Demichelis was in such self-destruct mode that he might as well have plucked the ball up and walked it into the net himself. But after this great start United couldn’t respond to the energy and intensity of Bayern’s reaction. It was almost as if we were caught out by just how much they were up for the game. Olic’s winner in the 92 minute was a perfect little snippet of how the match had gone. It involved all manner of confused defensive fumblings by United defenders who were not fully concentrating on the task in hand, and allowed an alive and alert Olic to steal away from three supposedly world class defenders without the merest hint of skill. Just a quick burst of energy was enough to undo us. This was going on all game. And whatever Ferguson had intended when he brought Berbatov and Valencia on for Park and the often infuriating Carrick in the second half, it had the opposite effect. We actually got worse. It was a baffling performance all round. But I was even more bewildered the next morning when I read that my favourite football writer, Henry Winter of Telegraph Sports, actually thought United had played well. “Bayern were stunned, outclassed and outpassed. United were imperious in the first half” he reckoned. I’m sorry Henry but I don’t know what game you were watching. Ferguson’s brief half-time interview was dominated by his concern for how poorly we had retained possession first half. Thankfully, Oliver Kay of The Times was far more accurate when he described our “sloppy performance” as resulting in “no more than United deserved”.
Ultimately the tie is still very much in the balance. But without Rooney it is time for the likes of Berbatov, the improving Nani and maybe even forgotten youngster Federico Macheda, to finally show that they are up to the task. Over the next few weeks we’re about to see whether Man United really are the one-man team they’re made out to be.