Ahead of the UEFA Champions League return this week, this blog takes a look back at one of the underrated away performances by an English side in the competition.
9th November 1997 — The best of Manchester United has yet to be seen on foreign fields but a polished display in Rotterdam left fans and even Alex Ferguson pondering if this could be their year. No team at present is accumulating such a sequence of victories and by next week, should they defeat Arsenal, the countdown to a treble of league trophies may well and truly begin. By the time Champions League football resumes in early Spring, United’s domestic lead might be so commanding that European distractions could be forgiven for.
If that is the case, the dramatic burst in form of Andy Cole couldn’t have come at a better time. After being at the receiving end of media bashing in the reverse fixture, the striker hit his first away hat-trick for the club, taking his tally to eight goals in his last three matches. United now have taken maximum points from their four group matches, scoring 11 in the process.
Always looking calm and assured with and without the ball, Ferguson’s men have now mastered the art of game management in Europe, allowing their opponents to come at them and counter-punching with quick breaks. While Feyenoord did manage to score, it was a mere consolation after minutes of chasing the ball.
Prior to the game, Ferguson called for a policy of “patience and caution,” yet this was a message ignored by a section of the travelling supporters, involved in a brawl with Feyenoord fans prior to kick-off. Riot police were called into action and by the time order was restored, United got into a rhythm on the pitch. It took 20 minutes for the home side to manage a shot at Schmeichel, and even then Giovanni Van Bronckhorst’s shot was too tame to worry the goalkeeper.
It didn’t take Cole long to grow into the match and on the half hour, United took the lead. A free-kick won by David Beckham allowed Gary Neville to plant a long ball over Bernard Schuitemann’s head. Using his agility, Cole zoomed past the defender and when he tried to clear the ball away, it met with the striker’s leg and looped over Dudek’s head at the same time. Just before the break, the lead was doubled when Beckham’s exquisite cross met perfectly for Cole to sidefoot in from eight yards. Giggs came close to adding a third in the 54th minute after excellent individual play but chipped over the bar. He however found the composition to round Dudek with 20 minutes left and pass sideway to Cole, who shot into an empty net.
The only sour note to come for the English champions was the injury to defender Denis Irwin, who was sent to hospital for observation following a lunge by Paul Bosvelt after 82 minutes. It sparked furious scenes in the dugout, with Ferguson voicing his opinions after the match that Feyenoord should have had two players sent off.
Feyenoord (3-5-2): Dudek; Van Gobbel, Van Wonderen, Van Gastel; Schuitemann, Bosvelt (Zwijnenberg, 81), Boateng, Van Bronckhorst, Graff (Claeys, 34); Korneev, Cruz (Vos, 76). Substitutes not used: Petry (gk), Picun, Sanchez, Glaucio.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin (P Neville, 82); Beckham, Butt, Scholes (Poborsky, 76), Giggs; Sheringham, Cole (Solskjaer, 76).
Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), McClair, Thornley, Curtis.
Referee: S Puhl (Hungary)