Manchester United 0-1 Portsmouth 2008 – The biggest ‘what if’ game in modern football?

In a year of brilliant dominant teams (Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich) rightly receiving bucket-loads of praise, the topic of the greatest club side has come up even more than normal.

The greatest Premier League winners ever is another topic dominating whatsapp chats and twitter, in light of Liverpool’s record breakers.

In both conversations, Manchester United’s 2007-08 class are arguably a little overlooked.

This is perhaps down to two factors. Firstly they came immediately before one of the most lauded teams of all-time, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona of 2009-12.

Secondly, Alex Ferguson created 3-4 wonderful teams during his tenure, making it difficult for one single creation to stand out in this conversation.

If history shines a little brighter on one of Fergie’s crops, it is the 1999 treble-winners. Perhaps understandably so, a unique achievement in English football that we may not see repeated for decades to come.

But the Manchester United side of nearly a decade later came far closer to repeating the unrepeatable than many remember.

The only thing that stopped them was a remarkable and slightly preposterous match on Sunday 8th March, in which United had a huge amount of misfortune.

 

The Context

Manchester United were hosting Portsmouth in an FA Cup Quarter-Final. Pre-match, most expected an unremarkable affair with United going through and keeping hopes of three trophies alive.

Ever the master of rotation, Fergie picked a strong side featuring Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Der Sar and  Rio Ferdinand, amongst others.

Portsmouth, managed by Harry Redknapp, had built an effective side on course for an 8th place finish in the league.

Funnily enough they were involved in a number of crazy games that season. They beat Reading 7-4 in the highest scoring game in PL history, they drew 2-2 with a Derby County side who only won 11 points all season and won 4-1 at Newcastle after going 3-0 up inside ten minutes. In the autumn they were flirting with the race for a champions league place in the same way Sheffield United have this season.

Despite this they were not expected to be in the hat for the semis. They had been beaten 2-0 on the same ground only two months earlier, a game noted for Ronaldo’s ‘air dipper’ free-kick that left David James motionless.

 

What Happened?

Simply put one of the most freakish football results in modern times.

Even considering how strong United were as favourites this is a total battering, the like of which are rarely seen these days. A game so one-sided it is frankly laughable.

United, wearing the classic AON red kit, pillar the Pompey goalmouth right from the start.

Ronaldo has an early penalty appeal denied, Rooney fires just wide before Glen Johnson has to head a Carlos Tevez shot off the line with goalkeeper James in no man’s land. If the Argentine’s shot had gone either side of the England fullback, United would have controlled the game.

The other major incident from the first half is an astonishingly bad attempt at a tackle from Wayne Rooney earns him a yellow card.

The first true piece of misfortune to befall Ferguson’s players is when goalkeeper Van Der Sar goes off injured at half time, with number 2 keeper Thomas Kuszczak replacing him off the bench.

Just shy of the hour, the game is still goalless, but panic is not setting in. This vintage, like many of Fergusons, often scored late winners and were relentless to the last kick.

Vidic heads an out swinging corner towards goal only for it to be blocked by teammate Tevez taking up his normal position in front of the opposition goalkeeper. A real throwback of an almighty goalmouth scramble ensues. The ball nicks out to Ronaldo on the edge of the box.

In a season when everything the Portuguese forward hit seemed to go in, his shot bobbles centre-meters wide of the post. Perhaps the first sign this was not going to be their day.

It is incredible to think that the one man who was more responsible than any other for stopping a second English club winning a treble is…yes you guessed it… Sylvain Distin.

With United still overloading Portsmouth from every angle, holding midfielder Michael Carrick plays a lovely back-heeled one-two with Ronaldo in an advanced position.

Bursting into the penalty area, he rounds James and only needs to stay on his feet to knock the ball into an empty net.

“It’s going to go in!” yells MOTD commentator Steve Wilson. But no.

Distin appears from nowhere to get something in the way of Carrick. Somehow the ball stays out, sitting on the line for what feels like an eternity.

Even to watch back now you can’t fathom how the Stretford end net didn’t ripple. It just would not go in.

It is hard for words to do justice how unbelievable this moment is, and everyone should watch the game back for this clip alone.

At this point the hosts had used all three substitutes, including the enforced goalkeeper switch. Surely it wouldn’t matter, the goal was coming, right?

“How is it nil-nil!” Wilson cries.

Seconds later, Patrice Evra smashes the post. It remains 0-0.

With under quarter of an hour to play. Pompey manage to get the ball up the pitch, halting the siege.

Milan Baros is played in by Nico Kranjcar with United exposed. Baros is one-on-one with substitute Thomas Kuszczak who has come to the edge of the area, with Rooney and Anderson sprinting back to cover the goal-line.

The former Liverpool man takes it round the keeper, but is tripped. Penalty kick.

Worse is to come- a red card for Kuszczak, in spite of the players covering on the line and Baros moving at an angle. Never has one single moment affected such a great campaign.

In completely bizarre circumstances despite dominating the tie, Manchester Utd were staring at defeat.

With no subs remaining, Rio Ferdinand (in the middle of his greatest domestic season) had to don the goalkeeper shirt and gloves.

Sully Muntari drilled home the penalty and with one swipe of the ball effectively ended Ferguson’s chances of pulling off another treble.

Rio even managed to dive the right way.

Even for a team side that mastered Houdini acts, this was a step to far with no amount of ‘Fergie time’ able to save them.

The final whistle blew and that was it, the treble would not be repeated.

You may think it is simplistic to assume the Red Devils would have gone on to lift the cup, even if they did win this game, but it is deeper than that.

Joining Portsmouth in the semi-finals were West Brom, Barnsley and eventual finalists Cardiff City. All three coming from the Championship. Oh dear.

Portsmouth went on to lift the trophy with two further 1-0 victories, downing Cardiff in the final thanks to a Kanu goal.

We can never be completely certain but it is hard to imagine Man United would have struggled to put away two Championship clubs at Wembley, particularly as the treble loomed into sight.

They went on to retain the Premier League and winning the Champions League up against a great Chelsea team on both occasions.

In the era of four year cycles and managers focusing on medium-term projects, the fact that Ferguson came so close to building two entirely separate treble winning teams remains the Scot’s greatest achievement.

Had it not been for some incredible defending and unbelievable bad luck, he surely would have repeated that remarkable triumph in 99.