Matt Wills is back with your usual Thursday-fill, but if you missed part 5 you can catch up here.
Welcome back for Part 6 of Return of the King where we’ve convinced Cantona to do a U-turn on retirement and bring back his 93/94 teammates for another crack at the English treble.
I left you at the end of Part 5 with the first part of the domestic treble completed with victory over Division 1 Sunderland. We’re now getting to the business end of the season and we’ll see if Eric and The Reds can keep the dream alive.
We finished March on a high by lifting the League Cup, but there was little time for celebration as we prepared ourselves for some important semi-finals in April.
First up was the away leg of our Champions League semi-final with Parma. We’d been using the European matches to give some game time to the non-regulars of the 93/94 season, but after edging past Monaco in the quarters, we’re suddenly 180 mins from a European Cup Final and a possible quadruple, so we’re starting to take things seriously now.
Silk and Steel (Cantona and Hughes) are absent for the first leg so I go for Little and Large (Scholes and Dublin) upfront, and use Roy Keane in defence in place of Bruce – it makes little odds though as we concede to Orlandini in the 7th minute. We make few chances and a second half goal from Orlandini again looks like putting the tie beyond us. There was no way past a defence containing Thuram and Buffon – we’ll need something special to make it to the final now.
We dust ourselves off and head to Sunderland for our FA Cup Semi-final showdown with Everton. There’s some revenge to be had for the 1995 final here but because of injuries to Gary Neville and Leee Sharpe, I can’t send out the same line up from that final, but Parker and Giggs come in to ensure we’ll be heading back to Wembley with a thumping 4-1 win where we’ll play Tottenham after they needed a replay to overcome Liverpool.
After what seems like an age, we resume league action and wins against Blackburn, with McClair getting all 4 goals, and West Ham are only tempered by a draw with Aston Villa. Our cup exploits in chasing the treble meant the Villa game was 2 days after the West Ham game and 2 days before our crunch game with Parma, so a decidedly second-string side do well to get a point.
We head into our biggest game of our season so far which a place in the Champions League final at stake, but we have two Orlandini goals to cancel out and the spectre of an even tougher assignment if we concede an away goal.
The good news is Cantona is back from injury, but Hughes is suspended, so 4 goal hero McClair goes upfront with the Frenchman, with as strong a line up as I can muster, a good start to this game is imperative.
Giggs gets us off to a flyer after 16 minutes, bundling in a rebound after Buffon had saved from a Cantona long range effort. 10 minutes later Old Trafford is rocking when Irwin doubles our lead and puts us level on aggregate. During the goalmouth scramble that led to Irwin’s goal, Buffon is injured and has to be taken off. Buffon was a colossus in the first leg and I’m secretly hopeful this will open the floodgates. He’s replaced by Luca Bucci who goes on to become the hero of the hour for Parma.
We batter the Parma goal, but Bucci preforms even better than Buffon, resisting all advances and the more we push forward looking for that 3rd goal, the more I’m aware what a breakaway away goal will do to us.
The end of normal time sees us level on aggregate and extra time looms. Cantona is knackered having only just come back from injury, so I send Scholes on in his stead but still the break through cannot be made. Kanchelskis comes on for Beckham for the 2nd half of extra time, but still Parma stand strong – penalties it is.
I opt for 5 players with good set piece skills, but I can do nothing about Bucci – he saves from Giggs, Irwin and Scholes and we go out 4-1 on penalties, so close yet so far.
To go from using the Champions League like Fergie used to use the League Cup to being a goal away from getting to the final is quite a turn around and I was secretly hoping to get through and play Barcelona and give the 91 Cup Winners Cup Final line up a run out – imagine Robson lifting Old Big Ears! Alas, it was not to be. Maybe I should have started Eric on the bench and brought him on for penalties…
In reality, Eric came to the decision to retire after Utd lost at the same stage to Borussia Dortmund, so I need to have a chat with the Frenchman and make sure he’s not more deflated than I am.
We dust ourselves down and get back to league action to round out the month. Wins and clean sheets against Southampton and Leeds mean we’ve done enough to clinch the title with 4 games to spare. I’m both delighted and slightly deflated all in one go. In truth, once we hit form, no team has looked like catching us in the league, so was going to be a case of when and not if, still it’s the 2nd part of our treble chase in the bag, but I still feel gutted about missing out on a European final with this team that I’ve come to cherish.
See you in Part 7 where we see if we can finish off the treble in the FA Cup final against Spurs and follow our Utd players starring in France 98.
You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills