Manchester United begins its European campaign tonight, seeking to go one better than last season, with the pain of comprehensive defeat to Barcelona in Rome still fresh. But as in domestic matters the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have left many pundits expecting Euro failure this season.
Tonight sees United take on Beşiktaş at the picturesque BJK İnönü Stadium in Istanbul, in what could amount to a 13 match European season. There follows tough looking group games against VfL Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow, alongside the Turkish champions. But if getting out of a tough looking group B will be hard enough then redemption in the form of a Champions League win in Madrid, 22 May 2010 looks a world away. Naturally that is not an assessment that many United players agree with.
“The Champions League is the stuff of dreams and, as a kid growing up, you sit there thinking if you will ever be good enough to win it,” defender Rio Ferdinand told The Guardian.
“To be able to get there and win it was ridiculous for me, especially the way we did it on penalties against Chelsea. But having also lost a Champions League final, I know what that feels like too and it’s not an easy thing for me to talk about. It was sickening because it was our chance to win the trophy for a second successive year.
“We felt that we were on the cusp of greatness and the worst thing about it was that we didn’t even put up a fight really. To lose the way we did was really difficult. We just never got going. If we had scored in the first 10 minutes, I think we’d have gone on to win the game, but they got the first goal and it stunned us. We never recovered after that and that’s what is so disappointing.”
The pain of Rome’s final clearly resonates as deeply with Ferdinand as it does with most fans. Fourteen weeks on from the 2-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team and the search for answers still continues. Indeed, it was not the defeat itself but the manner in the context of last season that caused so much consternation. While United did not play the best football of any team in last season’s Champions League – that honour belongs to the eventual winners – the team did play some of the most effective.
Tonight marks an opportunity to put the past to bed and leave the regrets of Rome behind. Yet Beşiktaş represents no walkover and not solely for their vociferous support – the standard of Turkish football has improved markedly over the past decade. The Beşiktaş side contains not only former Barcelona goalkeeper Rüştü Reçber, but the Brazilian Bobô and former Inter and Everton defender Matteo Ferrari. The cosmopolitan nature of the squad reflecting the improved financial power of the Turkcell Süper Lig.
Despite the improved strength of Turkish football, Beşiktaş is seen as an opportunity for manager Sir Alex Ferguson to rotate the squad, with the weekend’s local derby front of mind. Don’t be surprised to see Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Ryan Giggs on the bench for tonight’s match. None will want to be in a similar position in Madrid, eight months from now.