This was not a match for the feint-hearted. The excitement and anticipation before it, the jubilant celebrations after Scholes' 14th-minute strike, and the fretting and nail-biting that accompanied the tense final few moments (six minutes of injury-time included). But it was also an excellent semi-final tie, full of attacking endeavour, and no shortage of drama.
The Reds were dealt a real blow before the game when Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney were ruled out. Vidic hadn’t recovered after losing a tooth in a challenge with Didier Drogba against Chelsea on Saturday, while a persistent hip problem denied Rooney his part.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are considered a club in crisis in Catalonia. However, Barca boss Frank Rijkaard was able to rest several key players in their weekend defeat to Deportivo la Coruna, so they arrived at Old Trafford fresh and with the Champions League representing their only chance of silverware this season.
Before kick-off, United’s fans held up cards in the Stretford End and the old schoreboard end. Behind one goal, a picture of the European Cup and the years 68 and 99, at the other end the simple message: Believe.
Old Trafford buzzed with anticipation andthe atmosphere was as electric as it has been in recent memory. But hearts were in mouths when, after barely a minute, Lionel Messi went tumbling in the box. Scholes committed the foul, but referee Herbert Fandel judged the offence to have taken place outside the penalty area.
Semi-finals can be occasions that demand supporters are on their game as much as players, and the scarf-swinging Red Army didn't let anyone down. The fans cheered each passing move, every tackle won, even throw-ins as if it were a winning goal. With such an occasion, it was no surprise that the first 10 minutes were fraught and frenetic. But as the dust settled, Barcelona did as the European away manual would dictate: they attempted to keep the ball, silence the support and frustrate United’s players.
The Reds almost expected it, and crucially stuck to the plan of picking Barcelona off when they did venture forward. At the first opportunity Cristiano Ronaldo had to open up and run at Barcelona, the approach paid off. His run was halted on the edge of the area, but the ball fell to Paul Scholes and he hit a humdinger of a shot on the bounce right into the top corner. He may no longer give many reasons to legitimately air the song ‘Paul Scholes, he scores goals’, but if he has become more selective with age, he certainly hasn't lost his sense for the occasion. Old Trafford erupted in celebration. The dream start.
Barcelona, needing just a draw to go through, still represented a danger. Messi’s darting runs, the presence of Samuel Eto’o, and the intricate passing of Andres Iniesta, Deco and Xavi made sure of that. The point was highlighted when Messi hadEdwin van der Sar at full stretch to stop a curling effort five minutes after United took the lead.
The Reds, seeking to use Ronaldo as an outlet on the break, were subsequently sure not to sit on the lead. After 25 minutes, the Portuguese winger’s pull-back found Ji-sung Park on the edge of the box, and his side-footed shot was desperately close to doubling the lead. At the other end, Deco twice went close from long-range, while Nani headed agonisingly wide from Park’s pinpoint cross. The tie ebbed and flowed in a first-half that highlighted two clubs built to attack.
United had to be careful that the 1-0 lead did not lead to a false sense of security. And so in the second half the Reds began to attack without reservation. On 55 minutes Tevez went close to making it 2-0. A neat one-two with Ronaldo on the edge of the box and he was inside the area with three defenders in pursuit, but his shot from 12 yards was saved well by Victor Valdes.
Former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry was introduced on the hour as Barcelona looked to penetrate, and seconds later Deco again went close with a 30-yard free-kick that deflected off the wall. The tension at the precariousness of United’s lead may have added to the drama for any neutral, but for Reds fans it was very nearly unbearable. Still, to the credit of the supporters, the noise levels rarely dropped.
Sensing the need for United to keep the ball – Barcelona retained possession and pressure for large periods – Sir Alex swapped Nani and Scholes for Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher.
Entering the final ten minutes, it had become a game of surprisingly few chances, although Barcelona were virtually camped in United’s half and continued to relentlessly probe and press. The Reds’ performance was epitomised by Tevez. Tirelessly, he took on the role of closing down defenders, tracking back and tackling anything that moved in a Barcelona shirt. But there were also towering displays from Ferdinand and Brown, who limited Barca to precious few opportunities.
The six minutes of injury time, which followed a delay after Patrice Evra suffered a head wound, seemed like an age. But United defended bravely, valiantly, and finally held out.
The Reds have had more than a fair share of semi-final disappointments under Sir Alex. But this wasn't to be one of them, as the fans emptied the stadium singing: "Follow, follow, follow... United are going to Moscow."