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1999/00: Beyond the Promised Land

On the 26 May 1999, Manchester United defeated Bayern Munich 2-1 with two injury-time goals to win the UEFA Champions League and complete a historic Treble of trophies, along with the Premier League and FA Cup. United, in the words of ITV commentator, Clive Tyldesley had reached ‘the promised land’.

How then, could a team that has achieved a feat, no other club in England ever had, improve on that success and attempt to go beyond the promised land?

That was the challenge for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in 1999/00 and his answer was to attempt to build upon this unprecedented success by building a European dynasty in the mould of the Real Madrid team of the 1950s and the Liverpool team of the 1970s and 80s.

It was a lofty goal but one that seemed eminently possible given the depth, talent and youth of United’s squad.

The season, however, began rather inauspiciously as United lost the Charity Shield curtain-raiser, 2-1 to League runners-up, Arsenal.

United then also lost 1-0 to Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio in the 1999 Super Cup in a major shock, depriving United of more silverware, as Marcelo Salas first-half goal earned victory for the Cup Winners Cup Champions.

Happily, United’s League form was much better. They won seven straight matches following an opening day 1-1 draw with Everton.

However, on the 3 October, United were humiliated by Chelsea 5-0 in a match which highlighted an issue with which they would struggle to contend with all season; the goalkeeping position. United legend, Peter Schmeichel had left the club at the end of the 1998/99 season after eight highly successful years between the sticks. Far from past his prime, Schmeichel had left due to his struggles to train sufficiently due to the sheer amount of and quick turnaround of matches.

It left a void which United would not truly fill until Edwin Van der Sar signed for the club in 2005.

Schmeichel’s successor in 1999 was Aston Villa stopper, Mark Bosnich. It was a signing which led to friction between Sir Alex Ferguson and his board. Ferguson has since commented that Bosnich was one of the worst professionals he ever worked with. Bosnich consistently struggled with fitness and Ferguson openly questioned his professionalism and wasted little time in looking elsewhere.

Initially, his extra cover for Bosnich was Italian, Massimo Taibi. Taibi was in goal for the humiliating 5-0 reverse to Chelsea, making catastrophic errors adding to the embarrassment of the previous fixture with Southampton, wherein he conceded a tame 25 yard Matt Le Tissier effort which somehow trickled under his body into the goal.

Taibi would never play for the club again. Long-time United deputy goalkeeper, Raimond Van der Gouw found himself starting more and more games for the club. Despite some impressive displays, he was never a long-term solution and the lack of consistency with the goalkeeping position undermined United’s season.

United’s League Cup campaign fell at the first hurdle in the Third Round as a reserve United side were humbled 3-0 by Aston Villa. A defence which featured Danny Higginbotham, Michael Clegg and John Curtis and a midfield replete with unknowns such as Jonathan Greening and Michael Twiss were no match for the full strength line up fielded by Villa.

United’s first silverware of the season came on the 30 November in the Inter-Continental Cup, wherein they defeated Brazilian outfit, Palmeiras 1-0 in a rather uninspiring game.

United had courted controversy before the season even began, through no fault of their own when the FA pleaded with the club to compete in the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup in Brazil, ostensibly to help with England’s 2006 World Cup bid. Participation in the tournament meant United would be unavailable to begin their FA Cup campaign, as the competition began in January. United were left with no alternative but to withdraw from the 1999/00 FA Cup, meaning they could not defend their trophy. The competition brought together the Champions of all FIFA continents in a tournament to decide the best club side in the world. The competition started disastrously for United, when David Beckham in scenes reminiscent of World Cup ’98, was sent off for a reckless challenge in the opening match versus Mexican outfit Necaxa. United were already 1-0 down. Only an 88th-minute equaliser from Dwight Yorke spared the team’s blushes.

United’s next fixture against Brazilian side, Vasco Da Gama was win or bust and United lost convincingly. United’s defence suffered in the sun, as ageing Brazilian legend, Romario tormented them with a couple of well-taken goals. The final score was 3-1 and United were out. They did manage a 2-0 victory over Australia’s South Melbourne to close the tournament with a win but this was a major disappointment. Many United fans would have much rather seen the club defend their FA Cup title.

Thankfully, United fared much better against European opposition as they bid to defend their Champions League title. In a short-lived change of format, UEFA introduced a second group stage meaning the tournament hosted two lots of six group matches before the knockout stage.

United began their defence well with four victories and a draw from their six matches, which were packed into a six-week schedule and topped the first group stage over French side, Marseilles.

However, the sheer glut of games this extra stage packed into United’s already busy schedule meant the team began to run out of steam. They were soundly defeated 2-0 by Fiorentina in their opening group game of stage two, before they recovered to win the Second Group stage too, after registering four wins and a draw from their remaining fixtures. Helped, no doubt, by the fact the second group stage lasted four months as opposed to six weeks.

United were famously on the receiving end of a wonder goal from Gabriel Batistuta in the return fixture with Fiorentina on the 15 March 2000 at Old Trafford. Happily United were able to recover and ensure that there was no repeat of the losing scoreline from the previous encounter, ending up victorious 3-1.

However the games were piling up for United and there was a feeling that Europe had sussed them out and the team were not the same force they were the previous year.

Despite this, United had made it through to the Quarter Finals. However, their opposition were the then-seven time European Champions, Real Madrid who were on the verge of winning title number eight.

Despite performing admirably across both legs, United were simply outclassed by a side boasting numerous world-class superstars such as Raul, Fernando Morientes and Roberto Carlos.

United drew 0-0 in the Bernabeu, which was considered a good result due to the fact United did not concede. Madrid peppered United’s goal with shots but found Bosnich in imperious form. Undoubtedly his finest performance in a United shirt.

Despite the disappointments in other competitions, no one could question the fact that United were still far and away the best team in England. United won their final 11 league fixtures en route to their Premier League title victory. Their second title win in succession saw them overcome nearest challengers, Arsenal by a then-record 18 point margin.

Like 1998-99 they only lost three league games all season.

Despite their League success and near miss in Europe, it was clear United were struggling in certain areas. The goalkeeping issues was addressed in the post-season with the signing of French World Cup Winner, Fabian Barthez. Although a vast improvement on Bosnich, Taibi and Van Der Gouw, Barthez unfortunately, would flatter to deceive and become renowned for his “Barthez blunders.”

United also needed surgery up front. Although they combined to hit 46 goals in 1999/2000, there was insufficient cover for Yorke and Andy Cole which meant they were overplayed which blunted their performances somewhat. United turned their attention to Dutch superstar, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Unfortunately, for United and Van Nistelrooy, the Dutchman had a problematic knee, which caused United to postpone the transfer. Van Nistelrooy suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury days later which delayed his signing for the club for 12 months.

Despite a third league victory in a row the following season in 2000/01, United felt like a team who had not met their potential as a European giant and by the following season were a side entering transition. It wasn’t for another five years before Ferguson rebuilt his team into a major European force once more. United were made to wait a little longer for their return to the “promised land.”

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