Deportivo La Coruna 0 Manchester United 2, El Riazor
UEFA Champions League Quarter-final, 1st leg, April 2, 2002
Manchester United’s 2002 Champions League quarter final is probably best remembered as the night that ‘metarsal’ entered the common vocabulary of English football fans and, indeed, those in the wider UK too. David Beckham’s 1998 World Cup had been ended by Diego Simeone (and his own stupidity, of course) and it looked as if another tough-tackling Argentine midfielder, Aldo Duscher, had put paid to his chances of going to Japan and South Korea for the 2002 edition. That injury occurred in the second leg of tie, but Beckham had also left the field injured in the first leg.
Ten years on, the tie remains in my mind not because of Beckham’s famous injury, nor his spectacular opening first-leg goal, but for what was perhaps the best Champions League performance on foreign soil by a Welsh footballer.
At the time, I was living in Germany and, several years before Sky gave British fans the option, German Champions League viewers were able choose any of the night’s matches for their viewing pleasure. My German roommate kindly allowed me to watch the Depor-United game, despite the night’s only other match seeing Bayern Munich entertain Real Madrid (he was a St. Pauli fan and had no love for the Bavarians).
The Riazor stadium in La Coruna had not been a happy hunting ground for English sides before that night: no English team had ever won there. United themselves had tasted defeat in Galicia several months earlier in that season’s first group stage.
At the same stage, Deportivo also won at Old Trafford to win the group ahead of United then booked their quarter final place by coming through a difficult second round group featuring Arsenal, who they defeated home and away, Juventus, and eventual finalists Bayer Leverkusen.
United had won just three of their previous 15 away trips in Europe and with Deportivo looking so strong, this was not a game United were expected to win.
On the night of the first leg, there were only two changes in personnel from the 2-1 defeat at the Riazor in September, as Sir Alex Ferguson lined his team up in the 4-5-1 that he favoured on European nights. Mikael Silvestre played at left-back, not Denis Irwin and Nicky Butt took Juan Sebastian Veron’s place in midfield alongside the famous quartet of Beckham, Keane, Scholes, and Giggs.
There was a slight tactical change in how the midfield lined up, and it was a change that would have a big impact on the performance. Beckham, of course, started on the right with Roy Keane and Nicky Butt in central midfield. The roles of Giggs and Paul Scholes were, however, switched. Scholes began on the left, while Giggs was given the freer role behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
Giggs roamed and roved from the kick-off. The change in position left the Depor defenders unable to foil the Welshman and perhaps even unaware whose responsibility it was to pick him up.
It was Beckham, however, who opened the scoring. Receiving the ball on the right from Keane, Beckham took a step and rocketed in a shot from 30 yards. Van Nistelrooy doubled the advantage on 41 minutes, tapping in Silvestre’s cross.
Giggs was threatening throughout as the La Coruna defence continued to struggle to come to grips with his free role. The only blot on Giggs’ performance is that he failed to score himself. He twice went close in the space of two second half minutes and probably should have scored with at least one of the two chances. The first lacked power which allowed Cesar to clear off the line, the second was blocked by Molina.
The departures through injury of Keane and Beckham were the main post-match talking points, but Giggs’ performance did not go unnoticed. In the match reports that followed, Giggs was described as ‘influential’ (uefa.com) ‘menacing’ (BBC), ‘bewildering’ (Telegraph), and ‘irrepressible’ (Guardian)
The praise continued into the the build-up to the second leg, both Depor’s captain and manager were full of praise for the Welshman. The captain Fran said that “the [Manchester United] player who impresses me most is, without a doubt, Ryan Giggs.” Javi Irureta, Deportivo’s manager, was similarly complimentary: “Giggs was their best player. He got away from us time and again.”
United went on to win that return leg at Old Trafford 3-2, but Sir Alex was denied a final against Real Madrid in his hometown of Glasgow when Bayer Leverkusen knocked them out on away goals at the semi-final stage. Giggs superbly scored the third goal in the Old Trafford return, but it was his first-leg performance that will be remembered.