UEFA Champions League 2007-08. Semi final. Manchester United vs Barcelona. Second leg.
The first leg had been an eventful 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty miss in the 3rd minute was deemed potentially costlier than gold in Dubai. You do not miss penalties in a knock-out tie at Camp Nou. You just don’t. Besides that, Barcelona pretty much controlled the game and threatened to make United pay for their first-leg profligacy in the return match at Old Trafford.
14th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo takes the ball on the left wing. Goes past Milito and Yaya Toure. Zambrotta intercepts his run and takes the ball, but misplaces his pass. To Paul Scholes. This is what followed.
Seasoned United fans will tell you that it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. They’re used to Paul Scholes scoring scorchers like these. Of course, the likelihood of consistently finding him on the scoresheet was lesser than most other midfield superstars of the last two generations, but he wasn’t too bad either. 155 goals over 19 seasons isn’t a bad record for a central midfielder. Besides, central midfielders and statistics don’t bond quite well. They are the pass-masters. The engine of the team, if you like. Probably the biggest compliment for Scholes is that he has been Manchester United’s engine for all these years with a manager who quite evidently has a marked affinity for wing-play. Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t really the central midfield person. Over his tenure, you won’t find too many central midfielders who have left a glowing legacy, a la some of the wingers and strikers he’s had. Says a lot about Scholes, yeah? Yes.
If you see any of the countless Scholes’ tribute footages on YouTube, you’d be pressed to find anything flashy. No stepovers, no nutmegs, not even any mazy runs past opposition defences. That’s him for you. Keeping it simple. But for the football intellectual, there is a lot of flash in those videos, sans the showmanship. Long crosses with pin-point accuracy, deft one-touch passing near the box or rocket-resembling shots from outside the box, he’s got the lot. Surely, that can’t be simple, normal stuff? How many times have you seen Messi, Xavi and Iniesta run for the shirt of an opponent player right after winning the Champions’ League final? They knew it was the last time they played against the Ginger Ninja. Even though he hadn’t announced his retirement, it was evident he would, before the start of the new season. And he did.
A wretched December of injuries, losses and knock-outs later, his decision to return is one every United fan can thank their stars for. For since his return, he has been in imperious form. Since then, he has made an impact almost every time he’s played. The long-crosses are back. So is the possession football Manchester United have been dying to play. They finally have someone to pass the ball to, in the centre of the field, and be secure that he won’t be dispossessed easily.
I’m writing this after a 2-3 loss against Tottenham at home. Paul Scholes came on a substitute to lift an otherwise shambolic United performance to the heights of a dreamy array of attacks that left Spurs clueless for the last 40 minutes of the game. At 37, he’s still controlling United’s play. Just like he did against Barcelona in 2008. Just like he did against Port Vale in 1994.