Europe the ultimate test of; the double Double winners

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Liverpool 0 Manchester United 1 Cantona 85

There is nothing like a couple of doubles to loosen the tongue, even the usually mute Frenchman was chatting away like a tower of Babel at Wembley on Saturday. And no wonder. There have only been five league and cup Doubles this century. To have won two of them in three seasons, as Manchester United have done, is a staggering achievement.

It is sometimes hard, when watching history in the making, to realise it. Let there be no doubt. When Ryan Giggs is in his dotage and Eric Cantona a grandpere we will remember this team. It will rank with the best, from Preston's Invincibles, through Herbert Chapman's Arsenal and Sir Matt Busby's Babes to the Liverpool's of Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish.

This may seem premature as they are yet to master Europe. However, the team is young enough, and the club wealthy enough, for that to be an attainable goal. Alex Ferguson intends to strengthen his side in the summer and his spending will be two-pronged. Cover players are required for what will be a demanding season and two, maybe three, high quality first-team men. A goalscorer to replace the hapless Andy Cole, a mobile ball-playing central defender, and a speedy right-winger are the probables (though, given David Beckham's form and promise, that vacancy may be for a bit player). They are likely to be found abroad though Dean Richards, of Wolves, is a possible defensive target, and Alan Shearer was widely linked with a move to Old Trafford yesterday.

If Ferguson finds the right men this team should go on to greatness. Even in a season of transition they have outstripped a resurgent Liverpool and free-spending Newcastle.

Even so, it seems extraordinary that, after going 70 years of this century with one Double, we have had four in 25 seasons, three of them in the last 11. Is it getting easier?

It should be harder. Good teams have more commitments these days. There are more competitions, at home and abroad, international football is more time-consuming; and, given the pace of the modern game, injuries may be more prevalent. There are certainly more suspensions.

However, the growing divide between football's haves and have-nots means these factors actually make it easier. Not only are the best players now concentrated at a handful of clubs but only those clubs have the squad depth to cope with the increased burden. Manchester United may have a flourishing youth scheme, but they still spent more than pounds 15m on Saturday's line-up - Liverpool spent well over pounds 20m.

Thus, in the last dozen seasons, there have not only been three Doubles, there have also been three instances of a club winning one competition and being runners-up in the other. This compares to six such near-misses, and one Double, from 1900-1970.

The suggestion that Doubles are more easily come by should not detract from United's achievement, especially as Ferguson has recast the side between triumphs. To win both the Premiership and the FA Cup was, said Ferguson, beyond even his expectations. "I'm really proud today," he said.

He had every right to be. Although United did not play particularly well they followed his pre-match plans to the letter and thus forced Liverpool to play poorly. The key was in midfield where United, given their lead by the magnificent Roy Keane, never allowed Liverpool to play. John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp were not afforded time to make telling passes, and Steve McManaman was not given space to run. Unlike last year, United kept their discipline and refused to force the game.

The result was a lot of backwards and sideways passing. In truth it was a boring match - but it had a memorable climax. There were six minutes left when Phil Babb needlessly conceded a corner. Taken by Beckham it curled away from David James, but the Liverpool keeper, having caught everything all afternoon, pursued the ball regardless. It proved one cross too many. Although he got a palm on the ball he could put no power in the touch and it fell, via an inadvertent glance off Ian Rush's chest, to Cantona at the edge of the area. Having pulled away as the corner came over he now danced into position, let the ball bounce once and then volleyed it through a thicket of Liverpool defenders.

It was a finish worthy of the occasion, one just wished it had come earlier. Then it might have made the match rather than won it.

There had been early chances, but most fell to Cole who was in miserable form. When Beckham did test James, from Giggs' astute pass, he made a flying save. The game then lost its gloss. With both sides reluctant to commit men forward the strikers became isolated; neither side could sustain pressure long enough to get men into the area; so neither became vulnerable to the counter-attack. Liverpool resorted to wildly optimistic punts at Peter Schmeichel's goal while United, Cantona apart, hit the ball over the top.

Time passed.

Then, a minute before the break, McManaman finally wriggled down the left and squared to Mark Wright, who laid the ball back with an inside- forward's delicacy. Redknapp, however, blasted it over with a defender's hamfootedness. It was Liverpool's best chance.

Four minutes later it was United's turn as Cantona reacted first to a falling ball only for James to beat away his volley with similar alacrity.

More time passed and one thought, if Europe is watching this live, with seven of Liverpool's side among Terry Venables' possibles, they will not exactly be quaking in their boots.

Eventually, however, Cantona intervened and we were spared extra-time. It was a fitting end, United were the better side and he was one of the few players attempting to try something different. He has been at the core of the cup run, scoring in five rounds and clearing off the line in the other. In 13 FA Cup matches for United he has scored 10 goals.

Afterwards, of course, many United fans thought it a good game. Just as Everton's had last year. In a way they were right. Football is an entertainment but, to its participants and followers the result remains paramount.

"Winning and losing is important," recognised Ferguson. "People have to go to work on Monday morning."

When, in years to come, we look back on this United team's place in history they will be recalled as a team which was successful and attractive. On Saturday they managed only half the equation, but, in the final analysis, it was the right half.

Liverpool (3-5-2): Jones; Scales, Wright, Babb; McAteer, Redknapp, Barnes, McManaman, Jones (Thomas, 85); Fowler, Collymore (Rush, 74). Substitute not used: Warner (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham (G Neville, 89), Keane, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cole (Scholes, 65). Substitute not used: Sharpe.

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury). Attendance: 79,007.

Bookings: Liverpool: Babb, Redknapp. Manchester United P Neville.

Man of the match: Keane.