It’s Thursday so Matt Wills is back in your life with the latest from Old Trafford. The band has been back together for nearly 2 years now and it has proved a fruitful endeavour, but can it be capped off with yet more success? You can catch up with last week here
Hi all and welcome back to Return of the King, Season 2. Eric and the class of 94 are going for European Glory, but tired minds and tired legs are causing issues…
I left you at the end of Part 3 with Utd neck-a-neck with Leeds United at the top of the Premier League, holding a slender 2-1 advantage over Real Betis in the Champions League semi-finals, facing an FAC Cup replay and into the League Cup Final against Leicester City. Let’s see how we got on…
First up in the league, we’re away to Leeds Utd who are level on points with us and beat us at Old Trafford earlier in the season thanks to an Andy Cole strike. Revenge is enacted through a brace from Eric and a third from Big Dion, with a Hasselbaink reply to win 3-1. We move 3 pts clear at the top and Schmeichel gets the MOTM for keeping Cole at bay. Keane is out injured for a few weeks after a coming together with Alf Inge Haaland, some things never change…
Next up, we travel to Highbury for our sixth, and final meeting with Arsenal this season. With the second leg against Betis looming I rest the main squad I rest the main squad and we lose 2-1, Colin McKee getting our goal (he’s scored in every game he’s played for me over two seasons, 3 games, 3 goals).
The home leg against Betis comes around and we hold a 2-1 lead. Scholes, Keane, Neville and Sharpe are all out injured, although Keane recovers from his altercation with Haaland in time. Giggs and Ince are suspended for the match too, so pickings are slim.
Hughes gets our first and then gets himself booked for tripping up the Betis keeper, Prats – prat. Kanchelskis gets our second to out us 2-0 up at half time and 4-1 on aggregate. Hughes doubles his tally and the rout is complete when Pallister pops up with the fourth. Ajax, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona are the other names in the hat for the semi’s and we pull out Ajax.
As we’re through to the Champions League semi-finals and in the final of the League Cup, the quarter final FA Cup replay against Birmingham is being played on Friday the 2nd April, 2 days before the semi-finals!
As March ends, Sharpe, Neville and Blackmore al return from injury, but we lose Paul Ince to a groin injury… the United Physio has a lot to answer for!
The transfer window closes, and I notice Newcastle snap up Philip Cocu from Ajax on deadline day. Leeds lose again, 3-1 to Derby County and we’re now 3pts ahead with 2 games in hand as we head into the League Cup Final against Leicester.
At Wembley I shuffle my pack as we play Ajax in the 1st leg 3 days later and want to keep my aging squad fresh. I basically line up my team for the Ajax game and then systematically replace them for reserves or anyone suspended for the Semi-final. So the only regulars in the first 11 are Bruce, Beckham, Hughes and Giggs. The game is a pretty dire non-event and when I look to the bench for some cutting edge in the final 20 minutes I realise I forgot the 3 subs rule, so have to send Keane on up front for a tired McClair and extra time is needed. Gary Walsh gets himself injured on 112 minutes and Schmeichel comes on to play his first League Cup Final as we enter penalties.
Chris Armstrong misses the first and we’re in control until Keane misses the 4th spot kick, we then match each other for hit and miss until Armstrong contrives to miss his second penalty and Hughes slots his second – the first time I’ve seen the penalties need each player to take one!
The extra time I could have done without, but we’ve retained the League Cup and the quadruple is still alive!
No time for prolonged celebrations though, as we head to Amsterdam for the first leg of the semi-finals with Ajax. McClair gets us going with a very important away goal, but Arveladze pounces on defensive uncertainty at the back to level before half time. The slick attacking unit that is Ajax retain the ball and pummel us in the second half and finally break our resolve and Mariano Juan puts them ahead with a tap in following a goalmouth scramble. Not the result I wanted, but the away goal might be vital.
No time to mourn as we arrive two days later in Birmingham for our quarter final replay. I manage to put a fairly strong team together and we’re too much for City, with goals from Hughes, McClair and Cantona from the bench. Our reward is a semi-final against Newcastle Utd – two days later!
Most of the team are on 80-90% fitness so the team gets mixed up again and a Dion Dublin goal is enough to see us through to the final. Alan Shearer was suspended for this game, so it could have been much different. Division 1 QPR beat Sunderland in the other Semi-final 3-2 so we’ll be up against the might of Iain Dowie and Danny Maddix in May.
Oh yeah, and Schmeichel got injured in the Newcastle game and with Walsh also out injured, Sealey retired, I have no real goalkeepers at my disposal. A bloke called Troy Stevens is our back-up. I remember that Kevin Pilkington and Nicky Culkin were on free transfers the last time I checked, but then I remember that the transfer deadline has passed – damn!
Midweek brings Man City to Old Trafford. City are slumped at 19th in the table, so once again I mix the team up a bit. Sharpe and Wellens at full back, Thornley and Gillespie on the wings. Hughes gets an injury so McClair comes on and opens up the scoring before Cantona continues his purple patch to make it 2-0, which results in an injury to Thornley. Another two for the treatment room, but the bad news is for Hughes, 6 months out with a broken ankle, that’s his season over for sure.
McClair and Cantona are at it again against Everton for a 2-0 win, while Leeds poor form continues and they drop to 3rd behind Spurs. That win is our 6th clean sheet in the last 7 games.
In between the Everton game and the return leg against Ajax, we have a Monday night game against Blackburn to catch up on games. As we’re 4pts clear I play an entirely second string team and coax Scholes back to fitness, but it’s too many changes and we go down 2-0.
To finish off Part 4, we head into the return leg with Ajax in the Champions League Semi-final. We’re 2-1 down with an away goal, so any Ajax goal will make things pretty nervy, two will make it an uphill task.
I opt for the strongest team I can for the biggest game of the season. Schmeichel in goal, Neville and Sharpe as full backs, either side of Bruce and Pallister. Keane anchoring the midfield with Beckham in the hole and Giggs and Kanchelskis on the wings. With Hughes injured, upfront I opt for McClair to partner Eric upfront instead of Dublin, who settles for the bench.
Grim is preferred over Van Der Saar in the Ajax goal and things look Grimmer for us when Ronald de Boer scores after 17 minutes. Just when I think it’s Parma all over again, Eric turns up his collar and puffs out his chest. He equalises on 24th minute with a powerful rising strike which grim can only flap at and just as I’m planning my half time team talk, Sharpe sends a looping cross into the box which Cantona volleys past Grim, the tie is all square.
In the dressing room at half time, I remind the lads how far they’ve come and how well they’ve done despite all the injuries we’ve had, we’re so close to the final, it’s theirs to grab with both hands.
The players head out for the second half, and we’ll leave that for next week. In the meantime, here are The Welsh Warrior’s stats for the season – will Silk and Steel ever play together again?
Matt will be back next week but you can follow him on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills