United look to banish bitter memories of '02 defeat by Leverkusen
Champions League reverse denied Fergie shot at dream Glasgow final and left Keane furious with team-mates
For Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville and thousands of fans, Manchester United's game at the BayArena tonight will summon some rather difficult memories. United have been here before -- and for a game far more important than this one.
In April 2002 United, with Giggs and Neville, played Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Reaching the final that year mattered even more than usual to Alex Ferguson as it was due to be held at Hampden Park in Glasgow, where the United manager grew up.
Ferguson wrote in his recent autobiography that he was "desperate" to get to Hampden. "I was so sure we would get there that I had scouted hotels in the city. I tried to play it down, but the urge to lead the team out at Hampden Park obsessed me."
At the start of the 2001-02 season Ferguson had told his players that Hampden was the target and that he would be stepping down at the end of the year. With the signings of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron, United looked well set for their fourth consecutive title, but their league form was poor. In February, Ferguson announced that he would stay on, but despite the subsequent improvement in results they were still behind Arsenal in the Premier League by April.
Expectations were still high for the arrival of Leverkusen, however. United had topped their group, including reigning champions Bayern Munich, before beating a Deportivo la Coruna side stronger than Leverkusen in the quarter-finals. "Follow, follow, follow, because United are going to Glasgow," sang the fans. Gary Neville subsequently said Leverkusen were "there for the taking."
Keane had to watch from the bench for the first 82 minutes at Old Trafford against Leverkusen. United went ahead with an own goal, but the visitors equalised through Michael Ballack.
Van Nistelrooy quickly put United back in front and Veron nearly made it 3-1, before Oliver Neuville took advantage of some penalty-box pinball and turned the ball past goalkeeper Fabien Barthez to score the crucial second away goal.
The next week, in Germany, Keane started, but he knew during the official anthem before kick-off that something was wrong. "One of our players was f***ing shaking. He was afraid. Played for his country, won championships, big star, f***ing afraid of taking the big step-up," he wrote in his autobiography.
After 28 minutes in the BayArena, Keane darted into the box to put United ahead. But just before the interval Neuville, again, spun on the edge of the box and found the top corner. United pressed hard, but they could not score.
As Daniel Harris wrote in 'The Promised Land,' Keane was "let down by his team-mates, first in his absence and then in his presence." Keane, like Paul Scholes, was suspended for the 1999 European Cup final. Scholes would reach that stage again, in 2008, but this was the closest Keane ever got.
Understanding the magnitude of the defeat, Keane was furious. "We failed to take the next step towards greatness," he wrote afterwards. "We settled for the now reflected glory of the treble year. Afterwards, in the dressing room, I looked around. It wasn't hurting some of them enough."
Keane let his team-mates know what he thought about the defeat, and there was a row with Veron which saw the Argentinian midfielder fly back to Italy. "Of all our defeats in the latter rounds in Europe," wrote Gary Neville, "perhaps our least forgivable was Bayer Leverkusen." (© Independent News Service)