On 21 May 2008, the 60th year anniversary of the Munich crash, Manchester United lifted their third, and latest, European Cup. John Terry’s slip and Edwin Van Der Sar’s heroics in the Muscovite rain granted Sir Alex Ferguson his last continental trophy. However, in true Fergie fashion, the legendary Scottish manager refused to rest on his laurels. Despite having the most feared attack on the continent in Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, he decided to splurge over 30 million pounds to bring Dimitar Berbatov to the Theatre of Dreams.
The four front-men would rarely be given an opportunity to play in tandem, and would often flatter to deceive when they did grace the pitch together. The single, golden exception to this rule was a devastating forty five minutes against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.
Despite losing both Berbatov and Robbie Keane in the summer of 2008, Tottenham were highly rated at the start of the season. Partly due to seemingly smart acquisitions, including Luka Modric, and an explosive preseason that yielded 33 goals in eight games, the reigning League Cup winners were touted for fifth place by the Guardian. In an era when the English top four dominated not only the league but also the continent, this was high praise.
However, Juande Ramos’ side was unable to live up to their potential, and the Spanish manager was relieved of his duties after picking up only two points after eight games. In came Harry Redknapp, who promptly delivered to drag the London club up the table. By the end of the season, they had reached eighth, and had strengthened their front-line with the purchase of Jermain Defoe and the return of Keane. Going into the match against United, they had just secured Europa League qualification with successive 1-0 wins over West Ham and Newcastle United.
For Manchester United, April had been a good month in the league. After the 4-1 humiliation against title rivals Liverpool and a 2-0 loss against Fulham the previous month, they had a perfect record with three wins in three games. The week before the match against Tottenham, Liverpool had played out an epic 4-4 draw with Arshavin’s Arsenal, thereby gifting the momentum back to United. However, it looked liked the Mancunians would squander the advantage, as Modric and Darren Bent put Spurs 2-0 up at halftime. In response, Ferguson decided to take off the ineffectual Nani for Tevez, shifting Rooney to the left wing. Footballing nirvana ensued.
Rooney’s move to the left meant that he had more space and time on the ball, which he would use in stunning fashion to pick out Michael Carrick in the box with a slide-rule pass. Carrick was seemingly tumbled over by Gomes, the Spurs shot stopper, and United had a way back into the match via a controversial Ronaldo penalty.
For the second and equalising goal, all four of the attacking quartet were involved. Ronaldo reversed the ball to Tevez in the centre circle, who played a quick one-two with the Bulgarian and then found Rooney on the edge of the box. The Englishman, driving in from the left side, shot through Vedran Corluka’s legs and into the bottom right corner of Gomes’ goal to bring United level, with 67 minutes on the clock.
Within a minute, a Ronaldo header from a Rooney cross had put the league leaders ahead. By the end of the match Rooney and Berbatov had added to the scoreline, which finished a scarcely believable 5-2 considering United’s first had come nearly an hour into the match.
Despite having already beaten Tottenham to the League Cup, and going on to win the league, the 2008/2009 season has been remembered as a missed opportunity. Ferguson’s changes for the FA Cup semi-final against Everton led to a loss on penalties, while the newly minted tiki-taka brilliance of Guardiola’s Barcelona proved to be too much in the Champions League final. Both Ronaldo and Tevez would move on the pastures greener in the summer, while Berbatov’s languid style of play meant that he could never fully ingratiate himself with either the manager or the fans. Even in his most prolific season, Ferguson left the Bulgarian out of the squad for the 2011 Champions League final, which would prove to be another chastening defeat to Messi and co. Only Rooney remained, going on to become captain of the club despite the seeming inevitability of his departure in both 2011 and 2013.
Even with the emergence of several different players, from superstars like Van Persie, Di Maria and Falcao to potential stars like Januzaj, Martial and Memphis, United have struggled to replace the departed trio. While in reality the quartet struggled to function together, scoring fewer goals than the Berbatov-less trio of the previous season, their presence in the same squad was indicative of Manchester United’s presence at the pinnacle of world football.
Since those days, their stock has been plummeting. No longer are United viewed as the masters of entertainment, or technicality, or tactics, or even results since the departure of Sir Alex. Rather, today they are searching for success. Or, perhaps more importantly, they are searching for an identity.
Perhaps rewatching the second half of the match would prove useful to the modern club. As Martin Tyler squealed following Ronaldo’s second goal of the night, “Nobody, nobody, does it better than Manchester United!”