For all the rightful praise handed to Manchester United‘s 1999 treble winners, there’s a case that their 2008 squad was even better. And in another world they could easily have repeated that fantastic achievement.
United were healthy at the start of March 2008. Arsenal’s lead at the top of the table had been cut to a single point as the London side struggled in the aftermath of Eduardo’s leg-break at Birmingham, while Lyon had been despatched in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were still going strong in three competitions, having demolished Arsenal in the fifth round of the cup, and they were ready to take on a Portsmouth side chugging along in the top half of the Premier League under Harry Redknapp.
The battle was even but not too uneven: the two teams had drawn at Fratton Park back in August, while it took that Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick to put the reverse fixture to bed.
There are some games, though, in which you get the feeling early on that whatever one team does, they’re not getting out of the game with a victory. We saw it the following year with Chelsea’s Champions League exit against Barcelona, but in 2008 it was United’s turn to do everything within their power yet never really stand a chance against the power of a backwards narrative.
Things took a while to get really ridiculous, but the stage was set inside the first 20 minutes when United, who had already seen a penalty appeal waved away, saw Carlos Tevez’s shot arrow towards Glen Johnson’s head with Pompey keeper David James all at sea. Anywhere else on target and we’d have been looking at a United lead.
If having one effort cleared off the line is unfortunate and two is careless, then for it to happen three times is surely a sign that it’s just not your day.
First we saw a mass of Portsmouth legs deny Tevez from just in front of the line, with Cristiano Ronaldo almost forcing defenders into action again when the ball was cleared to the edge of the box, and then – 10 minutes later – we would witness the coup de grace.
United’s golden chance, about 20 minutes from time, was classic third-wave Fergie.
It was an hour of banging at the door with no reward, only for a moment of genius to shoot down the opposition right at the moment they started to consider an option other than crushing defeat.
On another day, we’d be talking about the brilliance from Ronaldo, thinking quickly enough to send Michael Carrick through on goal with a backheel but delaying long enough – without the clearest view of his target, let’s not forget – to ensure the ball reached the midfielder without him having to alter his stride pattern.
However, as anyone who was at Old Trafford that day will remind you, we are not, thanks to Sylvain Distin’s sheer force of will. After James delayed what felt inevitable, Distin did the closest thing in football to wedging a broom-handle in the door.
Suddenly, aspects like skill and timing weren’t necessary, and the playing field was evened up. It was just about who was stronger, physically and mentally, and Carrick couldn’t find a way through because Distin simply decided “no, not today”.
Perhaps it wasn’t a guarantee of victory on its own, but when you added it to everything that came before it certainly felt that way.
Of course, after surviving in such an unorthodox manner, Portsmouth’s winner wasn’t exactly going to be a ‘normal’ goal.
The fact that it came from the penalty spot isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. The fact that the penalty was taken with Rio Ferdinand in goal, though…
Some might argue it was a bad idea for Tomasz Kuszczak to wipe out Milan Baros when (a) Kuszczak had come on as a sub for Edwin van der Sar and (b) United had used all their changes anyway.
Maybe he thought he’d escape a red card because he trusted the ref to take pity, or maybe he just thought Ferdinand, a centre-back with no known goalkeeping experience, was better placed than him to save Sulley Muntari’s penalty. Either way, he was wrong.
A man down, United didn’t have what it took to find an equaliser.
If they had, though, you’d have fancied their chances to go all the way given Portsmouth’s subsequent opponents were West Brom and Cardiff.
One way of looking at things is that, without the distraction of the cup, Ferguson’s team were able to focus their attention elsewhere and win competitions which might otherwise have stretched their squad.
Another way, though, is to acknowledge a bizarre game, and an effort of real heroism from Distin, stopped United’s 2008 squad taking the mantle from their 1999 peers in the conversation about English football’s modern greats.
By Tom Victor