Football: Towering strengths of Stam United

IT SAID something about the rich memories on offer for Manchester United players over recent weeks that Jaap Stam was genuinely puzzled. "Which game?" he said when asked about the game. "Oh yes, Wednesday," he added. Perhaps his mind had genuinely strayed forward to the match against Leeds United today or maybe he was just a bit game-lagged. Which game? The Game. United's bulging history books will remind him in years to come.

Stam has spent most of the last three days being treated for a sore Achilles tendon, which might rule him out of the line-up at Elland Road today. The injury has been troubling him for a few weeks now, though no one from Arsenal or Juventus would have sensed the hindrance. Besides his considerable defensive skills, the big Dutchman has fostered an air of calm authority largely missing in the United side since the departures of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Roy Keane might be the spiritual leader of the side, but Stam's mental strength has been equally decisive in United's remarkable run for the "treble".

Far from being destroyed by Filippo Inzaghi's incisive running and finishing in the first 20 minutes in Turin or by the cruel deflection which caused the ball to loop over Peter Schmeichel for Juventus's seemingly decisive second goal, Stam rolled up his sleeves a bit higher and went back to work. The prospect of defeat, he said, never entered his head. If the designer chic has been flaunted by Beckham, Yorke, Cole and Giggs, the blue collars have been modelled by Stam and the indefatigable Keane. "I've never played in a club game quite like that before," Stam said. "Holland v Brazil in the World Cup semi-final, that was a big game, but this one matched that, not least because so many people had said beforehand that we wouldn't make it."

Most of those critics were looking pretty smug after 10 minutes. But, paradoxically, Juventus's early strikes eased the strain for United and Alex Ferguson. No longer did United have to think on their feet, an art rarely mastered by English clubs in Europe. Now the calculations were less complex. A tactical game plan was imposed on United which suited them and their tradition very neatly. Go out and score some goals, just as you did in Munich and Milan, Brondby and Barcelona. "It was a good thought to have," Stam said. "We knew we could score and we knew we had been down in matches before and come back." Too late, Juve sensed their mistake. "You could feel them getting nervous once we had got back to 2-1," Stam said. "In the back of their minds, they knew that we were through if we scored again."

For a side as experienced as the Italian champions, European Cup finalists for the last three years, yielding immediate momentum to United was an elementary error. Juventus sides of old would have killed the game off there and then. But this one sat back and watched as if bemused by the luxury of a clear advantage, their first in the whole interminable competition, as if they had prepared for every eventuality other than marked superiority. Only Edgar Davids tried to lift the team out of their slumbers and he was confined to Beckham patrol for the second half. Stam's belated harnessing of the darting Inzaghi forced Carlo Ancelotti, the Juventus coach, to bring on Nicola Amoruso, but instead of doubling Juventus's striking power the move halved Filippo Inzaghi's effectiveness.

"Inzaghi," said Stam "does not have the quality of Ronaldo. He is not the type of player who dribbles round defenders and scores, but he moves into gaps between a couple of players and gets his foot on the ball. In the beginning, the impetus of the team was not what we wanted. He had too much space but after the first 10 minutes or so we started to push up and their midfield didn't have so much space. Then he started diving and complaining the whole time."

United have won nothing yet, as Ferguson would doubtless have reminded his side on return from cloud nine. His prime task now is to keep eyes focused on the prizes, each one in turn. But his side must be feeling perilously close to invincible. After Wednesday night, no cause will seem lost.

Today, it is the turn of Leeds, an old enemy, to feel the force. One for the A team probably: Sheringham, Blomqvist and May. But such is Ferguson's touch at present, he could pitch in his youth side and still get a result. Two cup finals and Rupert Murdoch off his back as well. No wonder he had a smile as broad as the Clyde last week.

It would only spoil it to point out that Leeds' last appearance in the European Cup final ended in defeat by Bayern Munich 23 years ago. The referee disallowed a Leeds goal and their fans rioted at the final whistle to complete an unsavoury night.

Whether United can lay to rest the ghosts of 1968 once and for all depends on the depth of their physical and mental resources. The adrenalin of victory cannot stave off fatigue indefinitely and Bayern are likely to have their Bundesliga title in the trophy cabinet long before United can afford to relax. The smart money might go on Newcastle for the Cup, but United feel they have the measure of the Germans, not least in defence where a physical clash with the giant Carsten Jancker is far more favourable to Stam than another close encounter with the more mobile Brazilian striker, Elber, who is out for the season. If forced to deal, Ferguson would doubtless trade the Premiership and FA Cup for the Holy Grail of Europe. Without Keane, it will be a night for cool heads in Barcelona on 26 May.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?