May 26 1999. A date inscribed across the mind of every Manchester United player as the one to aspire to. Every player, that is, except Owen Hargreaves, for whom that night in the Nou Camp conjures memories of him “screaming his head off” in his Bayern Munich tracksuit, then wondering quite how the club he was making his way with had managed to throw away a Champions League final.
There were to be better moments ahead for Hargreaves - he played two years later in the Bayern team which took the Champions League trophy and was about to assume a defining role in the sudden death stages of penalty shoot-out before Oliver Kahn spared him the ordeal - and after his most convincing night in a Manchester United shirt on Wednesday he is mustering some confidence that he will be running out again at Nou Camp for the semi final first leg with Barcelona a week on Wednesday.
Though Hargreaves was still making his way through the Bayern ranks when he watched Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer break his side in 1999, the closing stages of the tournament two years later provided the first sense of how much he had to offer. There were the command performances in the semi final against Real Madrid, demonstrating he could live with Roberto Carlos and Luis Figo, and then the final against Valencia.
“The only thing I really remember (about the final) is that I needed a haircut,” Hargreaves recalled. “I had big, floppy hair and maybe that's one of the reasons I don't watch it. On the Saturday we had won the Bundesliga in Hamburg and then on the Wednesday it was the Champions League final. The senior players had team meetings leading up to the final and I was never involved. But I think they knew they could rely on me because I was relentless in training leading up to that game.” Hargreaves might have been a mere 21 and concluding his first season in a Bayern first team shirt but he was left in no doubt about his responsibilities when the penalty shoot out was under way. “I was next to take a penalty, there was just me and striker Carsten Jancker,” he recalled. “I was respectful to him and said he would probably want to take the next penalty and he said 'Absolutely not, it's you'.” When Khan made his third save, from Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino, Hargreaves could let his breath out.
“It's seven years ago now. What's gone is gone,” Hargreaves said of that final, but he must be wondering how, having been pursued so assiduously by Manchester United, he has played such a periperal role in Europe in his first season. His advanced midfield role in Wednesday's 1-0 win over Roma was only the second Champions League start this season for a player expressly bought for that tournament.
His tendonitis has undoubtedly played a part and Hargreaves revealed yesterday that this ongoing condition, which in his case affects the patellar tendon just below the kneecap and can “sometimes…take a few months, sometimes a few years,” has forced him to miss some training sessions.
“This problem stays with you,” Hargreaves said. "It's different to most injuries. If you break something, that's easy. The bone or the ligament will heal. But the tendon is more complicated. There aren't a lot of answers so I'm trying to do the best I can with it and some days are better than others. It's something the doctors say I have to manage. It's something I can play through if I get it really warmed up but to get to that stage is difficult at time.” So no problem with his timekeeping, as has been suggested? “I've got a good watch, a Swiss watch and it's perfectly on time thank you.”
All told Hargreaves has just had to take his chances when they have arrived and there is a real sense that, for him, Europe is the predominant objective as United stride towards the season's denoument with United 12-5 for the double with one bookmaker. Hargreaves has been struck by a section of Roy Keane's biography Keane which he read last autumn in which Keane pulls up Jaap Stam for suggesting the league title is the priority. "The book came out a while ago and I can't say whether the manager would say that these days but, there is a totally different atmosphere at Old Trafford for European games than for domestic fixtures. United now considers itself a global brand and it needs success in Europe to strengthen that position.”
Barcelona - a side he has never encountered - seem like the side he was signed to counteract. “You know exactly how they're going to play,” he said. “They're going to try to play right through the middle of us and we're going to have to defend very well. We're in the home straight and this is where it counts.”
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