Pre-season is over and the real business is about to begin. August stands to be a pretty busy month for us, with six fixtures in total and two trophies up for grabs, so let’s get cracking...
Up first is a trip to Wembley to face Arsenal in the traditional curtain-raiser, the Charity Shield. It’d be nice to get up and running with a bit of silverware in the bag, but Arsenal will provide a stern test.
Arsenal tend to play a 4-4-2 so I’ll match them for shape, but weary of the threat posed by speedy wingers Marc Overmars and Robert Pires, I’ve picked Phil Neville to play on the left of midfield, with instructions to track back and support the full-back. David Beckham will do the same on the right. We’re still waiting on a work permit for Juan Roman Riquelme, so Alessandro Nesta is the only one of my new signings to start.
Well Arsene Wenger has thrown me a bit of a curve-ball here: no Overmars or Pires in the starting line-up. Instead, it’s Stephen Hughes and Ray Parlour occupying the flanks.
Regardless, we start the game well, and after 20 minutes Dwight Yorke fires us into the lead from just outside the penalty area. The goal seems to have angered Arsenal somewhat and they start to come at us. Thierry Henry is causing all kinds of trouble, but the Frenchman has to go off injured after only 37 minutes and I’m counting my blessings. Half-time: 0-0. One shot on target each and possession is 50-50.
After 66 minutes, Wenger brings on Freddie Ljungberg and I make a tactical switch to ensure his trademark runs from midfield are picked up. Nicky Butt comes on for Phil Neville to mark Ljungberg as I narrow the midfield to reduce the space. I also bring Ludovic Giuly on for his debut in place of Beckham.
Giuly immediately has Martin Keown on toast (or should that be French toast?) as he turns the ogre-faced England defender inside out, before flashing his shot just wide of the post. But then Arsenal substitute Omer Riza draws the Gunners level with 20 mins to play. I respond by hooking Andy Cole, who’s been completely ineffective, and I bring on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — if you can count on anyone for a late winner, it’s Ole.
But we struggle to hold on for the remainder of the game; Massimo Taibi is forced into action, making a string of world class saves to keep us level. We make it to full-time at 1-1. The format of the Charity Shield dictates that we go straight to a penalty shootout.
Teddy Sheringham goes first for us and scores. Then Taibi saves from Emmanuel Petit. The usually dependable Denis Irwin screws his kick wide, but it’s ok because Lee Dixon blazes over the bar. We’re 1-0 up after two penalties each and I mistakenly allow myself to believe we might just win this. Solskjaer scores but then David Seaman denies both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Arsenal are the 1999 Charity Shield winners.
I’m not bothered. After all, it’s little more than a glorified friendly . Besides, what good did it do David Moyes to win the Community Shield in 2013? Exaclty. Arsenal can have it, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Not bitter at all, no sir.
The major positive I take from the game is the performance of Taibi. I may have been misguided in judging the Italian with my prejudice based on how his real-life United career panned out. Taibi is A-ok, I’ll put my quest for a keeper on hold.
Next up: Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in the first Premier Legue game of the season. I don’t anticipate Wednesday causing us too much trouble, so Giuly starts and I encourage the boys to get forward and attack.
Emerson Thome’s red-card after 11 minutes made a straight-forward job even easier. We cruised to a 4-0 win thanks to goals from Scholes, Yorke, Cole and Beckham, with Keane running the show in midfield.
With the match against Chelsea having to be re-arranged due a scheduling clash with the Blues’ Champions League qualifier, we have a two-week break before Arsenal are due at Old Trafford.
In the interim, Giuly, Beckham and Scholes injure themselves in training and, with Giggs already sidelined, I’m faced with a midfield injury crisis. But it’s ok, Riquelme will be here soon, all will be well once Riquelme arrives.
Giggs manages to return just in time for the visit of Arsenal. I’d have liked to ease him back into first-team action seeing as he hasn’t had a pre-season, but I don’t have that luxury; he’ll start and I’ll keep an eye on him. I go with Phil Nevill on the right this time, again anticipating that at least one of Pires or Overmars will play.
My suspicion is corect, Overmars starts on the left with Arsenal set up to play on the counter. Over to you P. Nev. And, interestingly, Dennis Bergkamp will play in the centre of midfield. Luckily I’ve got Keane and Butt ready to shut the Dutchman down.
The first-half passes without any real incident. It’s 0-0 and we’ve had two shots on target to Arsenal’s zero. Wenger brings Pires on for Nwankwo Kanu at the break to inject some pace up front.
After 57 minutes the visitors register their first shot on target by virtue of a speculative free-kick from Oleg Luzhny. Quite what Luzhny is doing in charge of set-pieces, I have no idea, but the Ukranian’s effort doesn’t trouble Taibi. With just over an hour played I swap Giggs and Cole for Jesper Blomqvist and Solskjaer. Little changes so, with 10 minutes remaining, I make a break for it and take Phil Neville off for Jordi Cruyff and encourage Keane to get forward.
My tactical tinkering works to perfection as Cruyff breaks away on the right and crosses for Solskjaer to head home in the 86th minute. Surely that’ll be the winner. Just as I’m contemplating how to shut up shop and see the victory through, I see the linesman is holding up his flag. Offside. It wont count. The game ends 0-0.
After a week’s rest we’ve got three games in six days, starting with a trip to Upton Park to face West Ham United, then Southampton at home before we close out the month against Lazio in the European Supercup in Monaco.
West Ham have got some of the most talented youngsters in the game in their side. Most notably Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole, who all line up in midfield for this one. Strangely, Harry Redknapp has got his team playing a pretty exotic system; it’s basically a 3-5-2- with the strikers instructed to pull wide and open up space for midfield runners. I decide to go with a 4-5-1/4-3-3, using my wingers to occupy their wing-backs, while matching their three in midfield.
West Ham are no push-overs, and they get the better of the early exchanges as Lampard and Paolo Wanchope force saves from Taibi. On 29 minutes Giggs picks up an injury and is replaced by Blomqvist. The Welshman has played a total of 93 minutes since his return from injury, now he’ll be out for another two weeks -- the sooner Riquelme arrives, the better.
Its goalless at half-time but we’re edging possession (wow, that was the most "van Gaal" sentence I’ve ever said). In the second half Neil "Razor" Ruddock keeps Dwight Yorke in his pocket — seriously! I make a few changes but to no avail. It finishes 0-0, and in fairness, Taibi was the busier of the two goalkeepers.
After the game, the board helpfully take the opportunity to voice their displeasure with the result. Then, this...
Next up we’ve got Southampton at home. Matt Le Tissier will be the main threat from their 4-4-2, but we should be winning this one, regardless of injuries. I give starts to Henning Berg and a young Michael Silvestre.
I notice that they’ve dropped Le Tissier into the number 10 position, so I move Nicky Butt back to man mark him. We dominate the first half but can’t find the breakthrough.
Early in the second-half we rattle the crossbar, lady luck is not smiling on us today. I move my wingers up to try and conjure a goal. Giuly, back from injury, is struggling for fitness but he’s a threat so I leave him on as long as I can. With 73 minutes on the clock Hassan Kachloul hits the bar, totally against the run of play — that was a let-off. I finally swap Giuly for Cruyff and the Dutchman gets a shot on target, but Antti Niemi is having a stormer in goal for the Saints.
It finishes 0-0 and I don’t really know how we didn’t win that. Our lack of goals is becoming a serious worry. It’ll all be fine once Riquelme... ah fuck it.
So we close out what has been a hectic and, frankly, disappointing August with a trip to Monaco to face Lazio in the UEFA Supercup. The Italians won the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup last season, and as Champions League winners, we face them here in this one-off trophy opportunity.
Our current state of injuries leaves me less than confident ahead of this one. And after glancing at their squad — which includes the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Pavel Nedved, Marcelo Salas and Alen Boksic — my confidence plummets further. But we’ll give it the old college try.
The early signs are good, as Yorke forces a save from Luca Marchegiani before latching onto his own rebound, only for Fernando Couto to block his goal-bound effort. Lazio then start to show their class as Roberto Mancini hits the bar with a beautiful curling shot from 20 yards. At half-time it’s 0-0 and, if anything, we’re slightly edging it.
Then early in the second-half Lazio take control. Salas hits the bar and we’re holding on. Quinton Fortune is doing a fantastic job of tracking Veron on Lazio’s right-wing, but the South African is tiring. Yorke sees a decent effort flash wide. Lazio have control but we make it to the end of 90 minutes without conceding. Another 0-0, but I don’t mind this one.
Into extra time and Giuly comes close, hitting the side netting from a tight angle. Both teams are out on their feet now, and the rest of the additional period passes with little incident. It finishes goalless, and we’re heading for penalties.
Rather tellingly, Taibi has been my best player. The Italian has been called into action far more regularly than I’d like, but at least he’ll be sharp for penalties.
We go first: Giuly scores. Veron is next and he skies it. we’re up 1-0.
Sheringham doesn’t look confident as he steps up, and he leans back slightly as he strikes the ball, sending it over the bar and into orbit. Matias Almeyda scores to draw Lazio level.
Irwin makes no mistake with his spot kick to settle our nerves a little, and Taibi saves from Salas! Keane and Sinisa Mihajlovic both score the next penalties, meaning it all comes down to the next kick.
Nicky Butt places the ball on the spot, deliberately avoiding eye-contact with Marchegiani in the Lazio goal. The England midfielder takes a breath before running up and smashing the ball straight down the middle. Marchegiani, diving to his left, looks back in dispair, unable to halt his momentum as the net bulges.
Manchester United have won the 1999 European Supercup. Get in!
When we get back to Manchester, I find this in my inbox. Not sure how it happened but I’ll take it, a positive end to the month:
You can find last week’s instalment of the CM99-00 Challenge here
And if you’d like to check out the series that inspired this feature, click here