Man Utd fans must answer Van Gaal's call to return Old Trafford to fortress of days gone by
After the defeat at Anfield last Thursday night, Louis Van Gaal challenged the supporters of Manchester United to create an atmosphere at Old Trafford every bit as intimidating as the Liverpool followers had done in the first leg.
That would inspire the players, he said. That would help deliver the most unexpected of wins.
Which was asking a lot, given that a side under his instruction had delivered a performance of such limp incompetence it would have dampened the spirit at the Rio carnival. Indeed there have not been many occasions in the last couple of years that the very fabric of Old Trafford has rocked. Under Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes an air of grumbly quiet has been more frequently the order of things; the place has been more often redolent of a library than a bear pit.
But oddly the very lack of excitation raised by United’s defeat at Anfield raises the possibility that the air could crackle. After all, the single best atmosphere ever known at Old Trafford was recorded in the 1984 European Cup Winner’s Cup quarter-final, when Ron Atkinson’s team, over turned exactly the same deficit as that awaiting the current side on Thursday, when they beat Diego Maradona’s Barcelona 3-0, turning the venerable old stadium into a cauldron of noise and excitement. How the current United could do with a figure like Bryan Robson to drive the enterprise forward.
And for those less inclined to peer into the murkier depths of nostalgia, it happened more recently too. On the night of October 1, 1997 when Manchester United played Juventus, a gathering swirl of sound barreled across the stadium, rattling the ribcage of everyone within it. Goodness knows what it was like to play in such an atmosphere; it was pretty intimidating just to watch.
The noise, had been gathering in its extraordinary in its crackling intensity to reach a crushing crescendo in the very last minute of the match. Ryan Giggs received a deft pass from Teddy Sheringham and eased his elegant way towards the Italian penalty area. Dipping his shoulder, swerving slightly to evade the attentions of a couple of defenders, he then hammered the ball high past Angelo Peruzzi into the top of the net. It was a staggering goal, full of zest and audacity, an early prototype of one which would electrify Villa Park a couple of seasons later.
But it was not so much the quality of the strike that set the autumnal air crackling with excitement. It was what the goal, which sealed a fine 3-2 victory over the Old Lady symbolised.
It had been 18 years since United had beaten an Italian team. In earlier meetings, Juve had defeated United in the Uefa Cup in 1977 and in the semi-final of the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1984; the previous season the Turin side had won home and away in a Champions League group stage.
- Five talking points ahead of Manchester United's crunch showdown with Liverpool
- Van Gaal's decision to send Wilson away continues to look foolish as youngster blossoms
- Paul Scholes wants Man United to sign these three European stars to get back on top
- Robson: Ryan Giggs could be Manchester United's Pep Guardiola
That was the assumed natural order of things. United were not then in the top rank of European clubs. Only three seasons earlier they had been hammered 4-0 in a Champions League tie at the Nou Camp, the year before that they had been knocked of the competition by Galatasaray. That goal didn’t merely win the game, it marked the team’s coming of European age. That was the moment after a 30-year leave of absence United became once again a proper European force.
Noise at football grounds is often governed by the level of expectancy. Nothing makes throats roar like a wholly unexpected bit of over-achievement. And that is what United delivered that night. This, after all, was no minor Juventus team. It had within it players of the distinction of Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero. It was captained by a figure who will soon become familiar to Chelsea followers, Antonio Conte.
To add to the apparent disparity, United were without their talismanic enforcer Roy Keane. Instead, Alex Ferguson moved the centre back Ronnie Johnsen into midfield to work in conjunction with Nicky Butt to close down the space in which Zidane and Deschamps could work. As a tactical plan, it did not get off to the most distinguished of starts: Del Piero had scored within the first minute. The sense around the stadium was of here we go again; this was clearly destined to be another night of education, of watching the canny Italian aristocrats demonstrate how the European game should be played.
But then, gradually and against all assumption, United began to gain some purchase. The mood became more buoyant in the stands as Giggs and David Beckham began to make frequent insurgency down the flanks. Even the unforeseen departure of Butt with concussion after less than half an hour did not dampen the gathering optimism. After all, his replacement was Paul Scholes.
Then, as the first half was reaching its end, United did something they have been largely unable to do this season: they scored. Teddy Sheringham marked his European debut with the equaliser, heading Giggs’s cross past Peruzzi. As the second half began, the crowd sensed the momentum had shifted. The noise was now unrelenting.
The Italians were becoming increasingly unnerved. Early in the second half, Deschamps was sent off after picking up two yellow cards. Soon after he had trudged to the dressing room, to a self-righteous swirl of indignation, Scholes rounded Peruzzi to score. It was a goal that greeted with bedlam. In the corporate seats prawn sandwiches were hurled into the air. In the directors’ box they were leaping. Everywhere across the ground the celebrations were uninhibited.
For the rest of the game, the noise was unrelenting, reaching its ferocious climax when Giggs scored. Even a late, late consolation from Zidane, scored from a sumptuous free-kick in added time, could not dampen the mood of unfettered delight. Victory over a proper continental opponent on a sizzling European night under floodlights: nothing could ever top that. Except, were it to happen, victory over your most significant domestic rivals on a sizzling European night under floodlights.