After taking last week off, the CM99-00 Challenge makes a triumphant retrun this week. And, with eight — EIGHT! — fixtures, November promises to be a busy month for us, so without further delay . . .
Aside from the impressive debut of 18-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, October was a disappointing month. Our lack of goals is my main concern, and I’m debating some major tactical shifts to see if I can get us scoring a little more freely.
November gets off to an inauspicious start when I learn that Ludovic Giuly has sustained an injury in training that will sideline him for three weeks.
Our first match of the month is our final Champions League group game (or at least the final game of the first group stage, as this was the era of the dreadful second group before the knockout fixtures) against Partizan Belgrade at Old Trafford.
A draw will see us through, but there’s no reason that we should be aiming for anything less than a win. Ibrahimovic keeps his place as I decide to experiment with a Guardiola-inspired 3-4-3 to see if it will illicit some better fortune in front of goal.
Just four minutes in and Ibrahimovic opens his senior account. Then, three minutes later, Mikael Silvestre makes it 2-0 with a header from a corner. I couldn’t have asked for a better start. Ibrahimovic comes close before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer slams home a volley to put us 3-0 up.
Ibrahimovic scores again early in the second-half, and our place in the next round is assured. Partizan hit the bar in the dying moments but, even if it had gone in, it would’ve been little consolation for them. It finishes 4-0 with both Silvestre and David Beckham scoring a perfect 10 for their efforts.
We finish top of the group, with Parma in second-place. The one minor annoyance is that Nicky Butt’s yellow card means he’ll be suspended for our first game of the second group stage.
Speaking of which, we’ve been drawn with Arsenal, Fiorentina and PSV in what will be a very tough group.
Back to Premier League action now, as we travel to Selhurst Park to take on Wimbledon. They play a defensive 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders. I decide to stick with the 3-4-3 and bring Roy Keane back in after being suspended for the Partizan game.
With twenty minutes played, the Dons take a surprise lead through a Walid Badir header. We’re struggling to get a foothold in this one as we go in at the break still trailing.
In the second-half, Jaap Stam manages to get himself sent off, earning a straight red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity -- he’ll miss three games as a consequence. Michael Hughes rattles the crossbar from the resultant free-kick. Then, with 20 minutes to play, that man — or rather, that boy — Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulls us level. Kenny Cunnigham almost restores the hosts’ lead as he strikes the woodwork. I bring Butt on for Ibrahimovic to protect our point. It works. Full-time: 1-1. Not a great result, but given fact that we played with 10 men for half an hour, it could’ve been worse.
Derby visit Old Trafford now in the League Cup. In true Fergie fashion, I use the League Cup — or Worthington Cup, or Coca Cola Cup, or Rumbelows Cup, or whatever it was known as in 1999 — as a chance to rest some key players, and give some of the lesser-used members of the squad a run out.
An even, yet uneventful, first-half ends 0-0. We start to apply some pressure in the second period as Ibrahimovic and Dwight Yorke both go close. I swap Butt for Beckham to add a little more attacking impetus, and we see this one out with goals from Ibrahimovic and Yorke.
The yellow card Stam picked up will see his upcoming suspension increased to four matches. I would fine him for his indiscipline, but, well, have you seen him? He’s terrifying!
Virtual Ronny Johnsen proves to be the perfect representation of real-life Ronny Johnsen by picking up an injury after just three minutes, Henning Berg takes his place. Ibrahimovic is causing the Black Cats all kinds of trouble, and when his 26th minute shot is saved, Jordi Cruyff scores the rebound. Then Zlatan gets himself on the score sheet minutes later to put us 2-0 up, but we lose concentration as half-time approaches and Michael Gray pulls one back for Sunderland. Half-time: 2-1.
Sunderland make us sweat right up until the 82nd minute, when Jesper Blomqvist gives us a two-goal cushion. Full-time: 3-1. Mark Bosnich earns the man of the match award.
We travel to Everton next. The Tofees are lining up with the 3-5-2 which is very much en vogue in this game. I stick with the new 3-4-3.
In a relatively uneventful first-half, Solskjaer comes closest to breaking the deadlock when he hits the post from close range. Early in the second-half, Kevin Campbell fires Everton into the lead against the run of play. With 68 minutes played I swap Yorke for Ryan Giggs, and encourage Beckham to get forward in search of an equaliser. But my changes amount to nought; full-time: 1-0.
We were the better side but that’s no consolation. The 3-4-3 seems to be working brilliantly at home when the emphasis is on us to break down the opposition. But away from Old Trafford, it isn’t giving us the protection we need.
To kick off the Champions League second group stage, we travel to Eindhoven to face PSV. A certain Ruud van Nistelrooy starts for the Dutch side, however, he is being deployed in central midfield, rather than the striker role he would come to make his own. I decide to try out a 4-3-3 formation, with Jaap Stam as a sweeper, in the hope it’ll make us a bit harder to break down.
The sweeper experiment seems to be working in the first-half, as we minimise PSV’s attacking threat, but we offer little in the way of offense at the other end. Half-time: 0-0.
In the 56th minute, our defence is finally breached, as Ismael Ayaz puts the home side ahead. I bring Solskjaer on for Cruyff as we scramble for an equaliser, but PSV hold on. Full-time: 1-0.
In the other game in our group, Fiorentina beat Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley (the Gunners were playing their home Champions League fixtures at the national stadium, rather than Highbury, back then).
In our final league game of the month, we take on Coventry City at Old Trafford. The Sky Blues, who are currently 10th in the table, start with Robbie Keane up front in a 4-4-2 formation. The 19-year-old Irishman scored eight goals from his first five Premier League games this season, but hasn’t scored since.
Ibrahimovic puts us ahead after six minutes, and Solskjaer doubles our lead. Three minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first-half, Paul Williams pulls one back for Cov. Half-time: 2-1.
Ibrahimovic misses a good chance early in the second period, then substitute John Aloisi equalises for the away team. With an hour played, Giggs rattles the post with a header. I bring on Yorke in the 64th minute, and less than 60 seconds later, Beckham curls in a beauty from 25 yards to put us back in front. Yorke bags a fourth 10 minutes later as we cruise to victory. Full-time: 4-2.
We finish the month with a trip to Tokyo to take on South American champions Vasco de Gama in the Intercontinental Cup. Edmundo and Juninho — the free-kick master who would later go on to play for Lyon -- are the most notable names in the Vasco line-up. Giuly returns from injury to start for us.
Wow, we couldn’t really have started this one any worse. Pretty much straight from kick-off, Pedrinho skins our entire defence and scores with about 20 seconds on the clock. Then with 10 minutes played, Giuly strikes the bar, but Vasco launch a lightning-quick counter-attack and Guilherme makes it 2-0. Nine minutes before the break, Giuly pulls one back. Half-time: 2-1.
In the second-half, Vasco substitute Paulo Miranda is sent off for a second yellow card, leaving us with 25 minutes to find an equaliser against 10 men. I bring Yorke on for Beckham and push Giuly out wide. With four minutes to play, Giggs pick the ball up in midfield and sets of on a trademark run. The Welsh winger skips past Edmundo, bursts into the box and unleashes a left-footed strike . . . which flies just wide of the post. Two minutes into stoppage time, Yorke breaks though on goal, one-on-one with the goalkeeper, only to shoot straight at Carlos Germano. Three minutes into stoppage time — the last roll of the dice — the ball falls to Ibrahimovic inside the area and the teenager rifles in a dramatic equaliser: 2-2, we’re heading for extra-time.
Early in the first extra period, Yorke puts us ahead. Rather than switch to a defensive set-up to protect our slender lead, I decide to stick with out attacking shape and try to kill the game off. Giuly is struggling a little in his return from injury, so I swap him for Phil Neville in the second-half of extra-time. Then, in the 108th minute, Yorke dances through the Vasco defence and scores to give us an unassailable lead. Full-time: 4-2. We add the Intercontinental Cup to the European Supercup we won in August.
Our away form still needs plenty of improvement, but I’m very happy about the amount of goals we’re scoring at home now — 13 goals from four home games this month. And for the second time this season, I’ve been named Manager of the Month.
If you missed the last instalment of the CM99-00 Challenge, you can find it here.
And if you’d like to check out the series that inspired this feature, click here.