There are some performances so good that, long before they are finished, you realise they will stand indelible through history as examples of excellence.
Manchester United are not exactly short of great European memories, but Tuesday night’s 7-1 victory over Roma stands comparison with any of them. This was an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime sort of performance. It wasn’t just that United scored seven, it was that six of the seven were excellent goals. Sir Alex Ferguson described it as the greatest European performance of his reign.
United wheeled out Wilf McGuiness before kick-off to whip up the crowd with memories of the first European tie at Old Trafford, when United overturned a 5-3 deficit against Athletic Bilbao. On that occasion, United won 3-0 thanks to a desperately late goal; last night the damage from the first leg was not so great, and United’s wait was nowhere near as long.
There has been a sense that Tottenham have felt the absence of Michael Carrick rather more than United have felt his presence, but with Darren Fletcher serving as a dog of war alongside him, the midfielder was superb last night. He scooped the first with a wonderfully conceived 25-yarder after 11 minutes to level the aggregate scores, and then for good measure belted a sixth on the hour.
To single him out, though, would be wrong; four of United’s midfield had an exhilarating night. Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps, was the most eye-catching, while Ryan Giggs, subtly probing, was just as instrumental. It was Giggs, ending a marvellous sweeping break, who laid on the second for Alan Smith; and then, after Ronaldo had beaten two men with a surging dribble, it was from his low cross, 32 seconds after Roma had kicked off again, that Wayne Rooney tucked in the third.
Ronaldo got the fourth and fifth, first with a shimmering run and finish from Giggs’ through-ball, and then touching in yet another Giggs cross at the back post. Daniele De Rossi pulled one back, but Patrice Evra ensured United had the last word, with a deflected drive that went in via a post nine minutes from the end.
Beyond the magnificence of the display, though, lay the shadow of hooliganism. There was what appeared to be a pre-planned attack on Roma fans by a group of about 40 men dressed in the classic hooligan garb of anonymous dark tops and baseball caps. Although police repelled that quickly, trouble flared again between opposing fans as they queued at the turnstiles. Eighteen people were arrested.
Chelsea made sure of at least two – and, with Liverpool almost sure to go through against PSV Eindhoven tonight, probably three – English sides in the semi-finals, Michael Essien hitting a last-minute winner as they came from behind to beat Valencia in Spain.
Fernando Morientes had given Valencia a 32nd-minute lead on the night, making it 2-1 on aggregate, but Andriy Shevchenko levelled seven minuets after the break, before Essien beat Santiago Cañizares at his near post.
■Liverpool will have midfielders Mohamed Sissoko and Xabi Alonso available for Wednesday night’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against PSV Eindhoven. Sissoko returns from European suspension while Alonso has recovered from a calf injury in time to defend Liverpool’s 3-0 lead from the first leg in the Netherlands. Manager Rafael Benitez will, however, be without the suspended striker Dirk Kuyt, who acquired a convenient late yellow card in Eindhoven when it was clear a ban would only rule him out of the second leg.
With only Fabio Aurelio and Luis Garcia injured long-term – even Harry Kewell is approaching a comeback – Benitez has the largely fit, confident squad he wanted at this stage of the campaign. His confidential rotation policy appears to have worked. Benitez said: ‘‘I do not want to say I was right and people who criticised that policy were wrong, but I have a confident squad almost all of whom are fit and coming to their peak at the right time.’’
The Football Association has begun an investigation into the mass brawl involving Barnsley and Birmingham players at the conclusion of Monday’s Championship game at Oakwell that the Yorkshire side won 1-0.
The incident was sparked after an initial spat between Birmingham striker Nicklas Bendtner and Barnsley centre-back Antony Kay. Blues substitute Neil Danns and home defender Bobby Hassell were given red cards after the final whistle by referee Mike Russell.