I promise to do my utmost to prevent this article from degenerating into an exercise in hyperbole but the task is a difficult one. After witnessing the display Manchester United put on against AS Roma in a highlight package, I had to reign in my jubilation and watch the match with a critical eye.
First off, I have to say that I subscribe to the UEFA.com video package and it is worth every single penny. The audio quality is good and the video is only slightly grainy when viewed at double size or even in full-screen mode. The in-game commentary is done by a single person and I find it allows the game to breath a bit more. I enjoy Derek Rae and Tommy Smith as a broadcast team but unfortunately they do not cover every match. The video package I subscribe to costs $40 USD and allows me to watch either extended highlight packages or re-run full games on demand (though not live). It’s fantastic and for hardcore Champions League fans, I’d rate it a must have.
Now, on to the match. Simply stated, Manchester United produced one of the most stunning European cup competition performances of all time to thrash Roma 7-1 and overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first leg. It was the first time that United have notched a Champions League knockout stage win from a first-leg defeat.
United’s brought their high-tempo game to another level and their passing ripped the Roma defence apart on numerous occasions. United deviated from their familiar 4-4-2 to field something resembline a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 with Darren Fletcher providing most of the shielding in front of his back four. Michael Carrick pushed forward in support and Giggs and Ronaldo made numerous interchanges between the middle of the park and the flank. Wayne Rooney was used in more of a wide role with Alan Smith acting as a lone striker at the top of the formation. However, all of the United midfield & forward players kept the Roma defenders under tremendous pressure.
All seven United goals were well-worked and could not be considered ‘cheap’. In particular, Alan Smith’s goal was a demonstration in one-touch football as United swept the length of the pitch at a breathtaking pace. The execution of the volley was almost pre-ordained by the beauty of the buildup play. It has to be said that Roma put in a very un-Italian performance. What one comes to expect from the top Italian clubs is a solid defensive setup with close marking and smart positional play. There was little of that to be found at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
In their defense, Roma did have two key absences — Perrotta was suspended and Taddei was injured in the warm-up. Roma normally like to use a 4-3-2-1 system (sometimes derisively called a 4-6-0) that has 3 midfielders protecting the back four with their full-backs pushing forward to support the two wingers whenever they can. Without direct replacements, Roma had to field two more attack-minded players in Pizzaro and Vucinic. This left DeRossi with the bulk of the defensive midfield duties and United recognized that they could use their pace to get in behind the midfielders and have a go at the back four. The absences alone should not be a crutch for taking such a thrashing. The Roma backline looked poor and rarely closed down anyone with any conviction, the midfielders were uncomfortable without the ball and seemed to lack both the pace to close attackers down and the determination in the tackle to win the ball back. The Giallorossi are certainly guilty of a poor team performance.
United now go on to face AC Milan in the semi-finals but must be wary against over-confidence after such a decisive victory. Milan also have to be wary of over-confidence after being touted as the ‘Kings of Europe’ by Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport, which hailed the club’s recent record in Europe.
Milan looked to be on shaky legs after gifting Bayern Munich two away goals. They turned in a very professional showing in closing Bayern down at home and winning the second leg 2-0. Both goals were orchestrated by Clarence Seedorf. He struck a precision low drive to open the scoring and later, with a delightful backheel pass, sent Inzaghi clear for the second. Milan are very experienced in the competition and now what it takes to win a two-leg knockout. It will be interesting to see how the aging Milan backline deals with the pace Manchester United will throw at it.
In the other semi-final, bitter rivals Chelsea and Liverpool will once again face off. It was in the 2005 CL semi-final that Liverpool knocked Chelsea out on a contentious “phantom” goal. Liverpool then went on to win the final in the famous Istanbul comeback against AC Milan. Rafael Benitez believes his Liverpool side will have the upper hand in their Champions League semi-final with Chelsea because the second-leg is at Anfield. Based on recent form, I would also favour Liverpool.