Football: Now for the greatest goal of all

Bobby Charlton: `I'm usually calm about these things, but I did jump up when Ryan Giggs scored'
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YOU COULD NOT have blamed Alex Ferguson this week if, just for a second, he had harboured thoughts of invincibility. Whether as a football manager, whose team still have three trophies to strive for, or in his alter ego of racehorse owner, standing with one of his winners in the parade ring at Newmarket, there has been the same ominous pattern to his success.

It probably did him no harm whatsoever when Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, a member of the ruling family of Dubai and a man who could probably purchase Old Trafford outright with something to spare, gave him a salutary warning against the perils of becoming too presumptuous.

It was the afternoon after that night to remember. An occasion on which Villa Park had been transformed into a seething orgy of hedonistic delights for his players, who had been lifted shoulder high after United, reduced to 10 men by the impetuosity of their captain Roy Keane, had prevailed in their FA Cup semi-final replay because of that wondrous, sinewy run by Ryan Giggs. It was possibly the only spanner likely to cause the finely meshed gears contained in the works of the Arsenal back four to crash.

The next day, at the headquarters of Flat racing, Ferguson's colt Candleriggs - one of four horses, who have all won for him - was as nailed-on a certainty as United are for the FA Cup, only for the Sheikh's Munjiz to take the prize. Candleriggs ended up out of the money and down the field. The question, as Ferguson surveys the prospect of nine games in 36 days - if United reach the Champions' League final - is will his two-legged athletes suffer similarly on the run-in?

As the excellent David Elleray blew the final whistle on Wednesday it was impossible not to wonder whether we were surveying the acclamation of the valiant efforts of an army on their last legs, with the spectacle of Giggs hobbling away afterwards and with that ace penalty-saver Peter Schmeichel unable to deliver goal-kicks, or one so inspired by the Welsh international's finish that the adrenalin rush will carry them through Wednesday's encounter and beyond.

Sometimes, you get the feeling that United's team are like Liz Hurley's latest dress: a glamorous vision to behold, but conveying the impression that the whole thing is liable to come apart at any moment. How punishing that supreme effort was in containing Arsenal will be discovered only on Wednesday night in Turin. As Arsene Wenger declared: "United have a good chance; the only question mark is how physically demanding that game will have been for them." Even without that it was already as onerous a task as United have faced all season and, if you took the first half of the first leg at Old Trafford as a form guide, you would not give them a prayer of progressing.

But then the sentiments were similar 31 years ago, halfway through the semi-final away leg at the Bernabeu when Real Madrid were leading 3-2 on aggregate. David Sadler and the centre-half Bill Foulkes scored the goals that secured a Wembley final against Benfica, in which Bobby Charlton scored twice in the 4-1 triumph.

Today, there is a certain ambivalence from Sir Bobby when he is reminded of that precious moment. "This is a different era, and I wish they could lay the ghost of 1968," he reflected. "It's a long time ago and, although you never forget the past, it is a burden on the present team. They're always being judged on the fact that they have never won the major European championship."

Sir Bobby, whose ambassadorial roles combine promoting the England 2006 campaign with that of director of the club he represented with such distinction, remains convinced that United possess the prowess to overcome the Italian behemoth. "Juventus have had a bad season by their standards," he said. "But they have great players and the mere event, the semi-final of the Champions' League, is enough to motivate anyone. There might have been a few little mind games about Zidane and whether he was injured, but he certainly didn't look it. He played fantastic. There's no doubt he's the best player in the world. He's so difficult to read and understand and he's very difficult to tackle, has always got control and so much vision. Left side or right side, he's got an inventive mind."

Nor, Sir Bobby added, does the threat end there. "They have got strength all through mid-field, if they perform. But they played as well, I believe, as they could possibly have played. We probably played as badly as we could play, yet we still got a result. I have every reason to think that we could get the right result there."

In Wenger's view the Italians are better organised to deny a team who place them under pressure rather than to adopt an offensive strategy themselves. "If Juventus try to go for an attacking game they might be in trouble. They have a midfield of mainly defensive players, the only really creative player was the second striker, Zidane. If they go for a more attacking game, United could find the space they need."

That is something Wednesday night's scorers, David Beckham and Giggs, would revel in. The former is fast amassing a fine collection of rivals' shirts, perhaps for his son in later years. After the FA Cup semi-final he sought out Emmanuel Petit's; against Juventus it was Zidane's.

Just as significantly, he and Giggs are also fast collecting scalps as they skin the opposition. Nobody, however, imagined that Giggs' victims would include virtually the entire Gunners' defence in one match.

Like a Van Gogh painting in a stately home which is viewed just by the family, the only regret was that Giggs' winning goal, indeed the whole game, was available live only to the privileged few, the 30,223 crowd and the Sky television audience, when it should really have been open to the nation.

Giggs' goal was the brushstroke of the master, with only the most churlish placing it in the context that he was a relatively fresh player confronting a tiring defence and a goalkeeper who might just have done more to come off his line and reduce the target. You suspect that Schmeichel might have been better placed to deny the scorer in the same circumstances, certainly on a night when his coverage of all angles made it all the more regrettable that his career in England will shortly peter out at Old Trafford.

Wenger, without any obvious bitterness, made the point that, had the game not been so poised in their favour, the Arsenal rearguard would have challenged Giggs and taken the chance of conceding a free-kick on the edge of the area, but were loath to do so when they were enjoying so much possession.

But Sir Bobby, a man who always measures his views meticulously, has no doubt about the quality: "It was an absolute sensational goal, really, the type only he can score, with his pace and the way he can twist and turn. Considering the importance of it all, the timing of it and the pressure the whole side were under, it was phenomenal, one we'll remember forever."

He added: "These sort of things just happen; he can't have planned it. He just set off into their territory and finished off having to beat all of them. I'm usually calm about these sort of things, but I must be honest, I did jump up when he scored. The whole evening was a magical event and the goal seemed to cap it all."

The treble still beckons, although uttering it in Sir Bobby's hearing is akin to mentioning sex in front of Mary Whitehouse. "It's not even worth thinking about yet," he declared. "There are so many hard games to come. Maybe once we've got two trophies in the bag and we've come to the last match, then we'll consider it a possibility."

After his experience at Newmarket on Thursday, you imagine Alex Ferguson would concur. Whether galvanising his footballing princes or participating in the sport of kings, he will be taking absolutely nothing for granted either.