|Zinedine Zidane has unmatched technique while Ryan Giggs(top) is a joy to watch, feels Sir Bobby Charlton
It was the eyes that conveyed the excitement first, eyes alive with the thought of Real Madrid coming to town Wednesday. Soon it was the words, pouring forth from Bobby Charlton, illustrating his keen anticipation at reminiscing with Alfredo Di Stefano again, and seeing his beloved Manchester United attempt to defeat the most glamorous team in the world.
The rarity value of the fixture adding to its collectors’ appeal, United versus Real has proved a classic down the years, conjuring up gems of moments from Di Stefano and George Best, memories of Bill Foulkes’ surprising surge and strike, of Fernando Redondo’s high-speed sleight of foot and, fast-forwarding to the present, of the brilliance of Raul Gonzalez in putting United to the sword at the Bernabeu.
A meeting of attacking minds in a celebration of the art of adventure, this Champions League quarter-final transfixed hundreds of millions of viewers in the first leg, won 3-1 by Real. Such was the technique and movement of Raul, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo in Spain that even Alex Ferguson, United’s manager, admitted he almost felt like applauding. Almost.
The white-clad heirs to the rich tradition of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento glide out at Old Trafford for the sort of evening when United’s home truly comes alive, when the Theatre of Dreams does warrant its grand, self-styled sobriquet.
Charlton, a fit-looking 65, will be looking on at the new generation, having raised a glass to the glorious past with Di Stefano, a hugely welcome guest as a fabled former player and now Real dignitary. Comparisons between the ages will inevitably be made. “Real have so many marvellous players,” said Charlton, resplendent in his United blazer. “We know Zidane. He can go out of games for great periods. Di Stefano never went out of games.
“Di Stefano wanted the ball all the time. He wanted to be in charge all the time. He was the brain of that Real team [of the Fifties and early Sixties]. He was the most intelligent player I’ve ever seen. He brought all the other Real players into play. He didn’t play for himself. Di Stefano was the highest quality. We hadn’t seen his like before.
“Real with Di Stefano was the greatest club side. Without any question. We suffered against them because of our inexperience [in 1956-57]. These lads now won’t make mistakes like that because they’re more experienced in Europe.
“We will score goals against Real. We’re good enough to win the match. Whether we can win by two clear goals, I don’t know. Real are a quality team and they’ll kill you if you give them space and time. It’s a challenge. Roy Keane summed it up when he said it’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever had.”
Ever the loyal club man, Charlton signalled why he carried such hope for Wednesday. He has thrilled to the team’s recent verve, such as the Paul Scholes-inspired annihilation of Newcastle United (albeit tinged with a touch of respect, as befits the Ashington-born nephew of Jackie Milburn).
Charlton enjoyed the moves that precipitated goals for Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs in the 2-2 draw at Arsenal, the waves of quicksilver attacks that shaped Saturday’s 3-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers, when David Beckham was recalled to the fold by Ferguson.
“We’re playing well,” Charlton said. “There seems to be a nice blend and bond between the players, which is really necessary going into a match like this one against Real. I get so much pleasure out of watching Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and Van Nistelrooy — all of them.”
Sadly, probably damagingly for United, Scholes will be sitting in the stands with Charlton. Despite the suspension of such a talent, Charlton simply draws inspiration from Giggs’ renaissance as a creative force.
“With a player like Giggs, you don’t lose that ability,” Charlton said. “It comes back sooner or later. If it was in his mind that he was having a bad time, he could probably dwell on it. I’ve always been impressed with the players. Their skill, ability, passing and desire are marvellous. They have everything.”
As director and club legend, Charlton knows the players well, appreciates they are sportsmen driven by winning trophies, not by using the field as a catwalk to parade their peacock feathers. “They’re a good group of lads,” Charlton said.
“They work very hard and are very professional.”
The players’ response to adversity has been admirable, recovering impressively from the humiliation at Maine Road earlier this season and the reality of falling eight points off the chase in a championship they now lead. “When you get beaten and get into a bit of a run that we had in September/October, it hurts,” Charlton added. “It has taken a long time, but the players have put it right and are passing the ball well.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the coaching staff. The players seem to have responded to Carlos Queiroz, the new coach. They always respond to Alex. His team selection is amazing. He can put a team out and you think, ‘Well!'’ but it always works. It keeps all the players happy, keeps them with the desire.”
That desire will be required again to live with Real but United cannot afford to go gung-ho; patience, an appreciation of the importance of possession and breaking quickly at the most judicious moment must be United’s tactics.
Zidane, Figo and Roberto Carlos will pick them to pieces, like roving vultures, if United’s players flood forward, although the English will be relieved that Raul, a striker Charlton described as “lethal” is missing through apendicitis. Even without Raul, United respect Real’s class and character. “They are such a big club that the pressure is part of the players’ job — and they handle it,” Charlton said. “But they know they’re coming to a place here where there’s as much desire as they’ve got and as much professionalism.”
Can his team, the kings of late, great escapes, achieve a seeming mission impossible' “Who knows'” mused Charlton. “It’s a great unknown. A little mistake is all it will take. A little bit of luck, a bounce of the ball and it can tilt one way or the other. Real are favourites; they have a two-goal start, but we will score. It’ll be an exciting night.” The sparkle in the great knight’s eyes said it all.