Football: United convert horror into joy

European Cup: Ferguson runs gamut of emotions as his players produce one of competition's great performances
Click to follow
AT LONG last, Manchester United are back where they have always believed themselves to belong. On 26 May in Barcelona's Camp Nou, Alex Ferguson will finally get his chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with Matt Busby in Old Trafford's pantheon of immortals. Last night he watched, first with horror and then with mounting glee, as his players produced one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the European Cup to overcome the Italian champions in front of 65,000 people in the Stadio Delle Alpi.

To drag themselves back into the game after going two goals down in no time at all, United's players needed to draw on all their reserves of grit, and perhaps on the ancestral memory of the way their predecessors - the team of Best, Charlton, Law and Crerand - fought to win the trophy 31 years ago. Now the opportunity is there to see their names inscribed next to those of legends. And how they deserved it, for the way in which they gradually but inexorably reduced their opponents to virtual impotence, forcing Juventus to concede three goals in a home European match for the first time.

Not that such an outcome had seemed remotely possible once Juventus had gone two up. Only 10 minutes into the match, United's spirited late recovery in the first leg was looking like a prime piece of self-delusion. Juventus began the game in exactly the magisterial style with which they had controlled the first hour at Old Trafford, their midfield immediately clicking into high gear. In the time it took them to score twice, they gave a masterclass in the art of creating danger at high speed. Zinedine Zidane was making sumptuous passes at oblique angles while turning his body and moving off in the opposite direction, Edgar Davids was looking as though he would never give the ball away, the scuttling Angelo Di Livio was exposing United's right flank, and Didier Deschamps was providing the solid base from which they all worked.

The two strikes with which Filippo Inzaghi appeared to have put the tie beyond United's reach were well deserved, even though the second required a measure of luck when Jaap Stam deflected the striker's shot over Peter Schmeichel. At this early stage, a goal seemed likely every time Inzaghi got near the ball. But then, understandably in human terms if unforgiveably in a coach's eyes, Juventus appeared to relax. They were up by 3-1 over the two legs, and had never before lost a European match in Turin in which they had scored two goals. The quality of their play deteriorated rapidly. The tackles in midfield lost their bite, and final passes went astray.

United, who had struggled to put any sort of move together in the opening phase, gritted their teeth and set about the task of recovery. Andy Cole, whose sixth-minute bicycle kick into Angelo Peruzzi's arms had been a lone early sign of defiance, showed imaginative and incisive touches which gradually began to draw a response, even from Dwight Yorke, who had begun by looking as far out of his depth against this opposition as he had in the first leg.

Spurred on by Roy Keane, gradually United started to make meaningful incursions into the heart of the home defence, prompting nervous errors by Ciro Ferrara, the replacement for the injured Paolo Montero. Ferrara, a player of great experience and achievement, has not looked the same man since returning from a serious injury, and as Juventus's patterns started to fray all over the pitch, it was in his area that the collapse came.

Even after Roy Keane headed United's first goal, Juventus showed few indications of the ability to pull themselves back together. The visitors were allowed to run at a defence which was clearly not good enough to sit back and hold them at bay. As Ferguson had said, Juventus are not a side equipped for such a negative task. Even in the days of catenaccio, it was not their approach. And when United's new impetus allowed Yorke to score United's second, a team that thought they had the tie wrapped up suddenly looked rattled.

Carlo Ancelotti's half-time substitutions betrayed his dissatisfaction. Pulling off Mark Iuliano and Alessandro Birindelli, he brought Montero, presumably half-fit, into the middle of the defence, while switching the versatile Di Livio to right-back and inserting Nicola Amoruso alongside Inzaghi. The positive effect was quickly seen in the spurning of a handful of half-chances, but at the other end of the field David Beckham took advantage of the extra space created by the reassignment of Di Livio, forcing Montero to bundle him into touch.

Juventus were now thoroughly at odds with themselves. The midfield seemed porous, Davids disappearing from view while Zidane and Deschamps were regularly missing their colleagues with straightforward passes. The late arrival of Daniel Fonseca, giving them three strike forwards, made little difference. It was United who finished the match with the more compact and convincing shape, repelling their opponents' desperate final flurries with relative comfort.

And so, never having managed to get past an Italian side in European competition before this season, now United have seen off two of them in consecutive ties. Two goals down to Juventus, Zinedine Zidane and all, and still they come back. Who would bet against them now?