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Wednesday, 01 May 2013

Manchester United: Who would star in a United Champions of Champions XI?

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Sqf Steve Coulter general

Manchester United have secured their 13th Premier League title - their 20th in total - and throughout those campaigns Sir Alex Ferguson has been in charge of some of the best players over the past two decades.

Greats like Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Ronaldo, David Beckham, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona spring to mind instantly.

But who would star in a Manchester United champions of champions starting XI from those 13 title-winning sides?

That was my assignment for this week and this is my team.

1. Peter Schmeichel

Despite the excellence of Edwin Van Der Saar, the Great Dane was always going to claim the goalkeeper's spot. Peter Schmeichel  joined Manchester United from Brondby in 1991. After a sticky start the blonde keeper developed into one of the world's finest goalkeepers. A brilliant shot stopper, Schmeichel was almost unbeatable in one-on-one situations. Who can forget his famous duels with Arsenal's Ian Wright? He left a scar on Arsenal fans' hearts in 1999 with his penalty save from Dennis Bergkamp helping the Red Devils win that classic FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park. 
In all, Schmeichel made 398 appearances for United and he certainly went out in style. When Roy Keane was suspended for the 1999 Champions League Final Schmeichel led the Red Devils to immortality. On a glorious night in Barcelona, two injury time goals saw United complete a historic treble with Champions League glory over Bayern Munich. 
One of my favourite players, Denis Irwin was a credit to professional football and Manchester United. A quality left back, Irwin was rarely outwitted by an opposition winger. Irwin made his name at Oldham Athletic and played against United in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final.
A fine technical player, Irwin was comfortable with the ball at his feet. He was a constant threat going forward and had a real eye for goal. On numerous occasions the Irishman would exchange neat one-twos before finding the net. Irwin was also a dead ball specialist. Many of his 33 goals for United were fiercely hit free-kicks. Denis Irwin also assumed the role of penalty taker. In his decade at Old Trafford, Irwin rarely faltered from 12 yards. 
United through and through, Gary Neville was part of the club's golden generation. The Bury-born right back played in the 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side. The same side included Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. Neville made his first team debut the same year in a UEFA Cup tie against Torpedo Moscow.  His strong tackling and fine positional play meant Neville was rarely caught out.  Never a profic goalscorer, Gary was an excellent crosser of the ball. Neville's passion for the club further endeared him to the Stretford End. 
Neville played 802 games for Manchester United. A member of the 1999 treble winning side he won an incredible 18 major honours for his boyhood favourites.
The Rolls Royce of central defenders, Rio Ferdinand oozes class. Rarely flustered, Ferdinand is so often at the right place at the right time. The London-born defender learnt his trade at West Ham United. His cultured style drawing inevitable comparisons with the legendary Bobby Moore. After a brief spell at Leeds United, Ferdinand crossed the Pennines in 2002. During his early years Ferdinand was prone to the occasion error. Several times his eagerness to bring the ball out of defence led to goals, but he was almost the finished article when he arrived at Old Trafford. His central defencive partnership with Nemanja Vidic has been the cornerstone of United's dominance of the past decade.
A superb reader of the game, Ferdinad was a member of the 2008 Champions League winning side.
A football warrior, the Serbian is the heartbeat of the United side. Strong in the air Vidic dominates the penalty area. His sliding tackles take no prisoners. Hard but fair, the ball is cleared from harm's way. A modern day Steve Bruce, Vidic is no stranger to the scoresheet. He has netted 15 times in his United career. A large proportion of those strikes were booming headers from well flighted corners.
Vidic joined Manchester United in 2006. Sir Alex Ferguson bagged another bargain when he paid Spartak Moscow just £7 million.
In the early 80s, Bryan Robson was christened Captain Marvel by United boss Ron Atkinson, but even Robbo has to bow his cap to Roy Keane. The Irishman was a supreme midfield general who led from the front. The ultimate ball winner, Keano never shirked a tackle, but having won the ball the United skipper was never found wanting. His precise passing kept his team in possession and at the appropriate time he would vacate his midfield berth and add his weight to the attack.
A marauding surge upfield would put him in goalscoring positions. Like all great players Keane rose to the big occasion, most notably  in the 1999 Champions League semi-final against Juventus. On numerous occasions the skipper's timely interventions curtailed promising Juve attacks. Keane also scored a vital  goal as United overturned a two-goal deficit. A wonderful display was tarnished when Keane was booked for a tackle on Zinedine Zidane. The yellow card meant Keane missed the final through suspension.
It was a pity that Keane was deprived of his finest hour. Roy Keane was the spirit of Manchester United. No cause was ever lost when he was on the field.
Like Denis Irwin,  Paul Scholes let his feet do the talking. The flame-haired midfielder was often the first name on the team sheet for club and country. He was one of a select group of players to have scored a century of goals for Manchester United. His superb finishing would put many a striker to shame. Many of those strikes have been memorable. The volley against Bradford City instantly springs to mind. David Beckham's  corner found Scholes lurking on the edge of the box. Without breaking stride Scholes blasted the ball past a helpless Gary Walsh.
But goals are just one bow of the Scholes armoury. An excellent passer of the ball, he is at hub of his side's forward play. Another graduate from the 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side, Scholes made his first team debut in 1994. He capped the occasion by scoring both goals in a League Cup victory over Port Vale. The rest as they say is history.

Sir Bobby Charlton is a massive fan of Paul Scholes. The United and England legend once said of Scholes "He's always so in control and pinpoint accurate in his passing - a beautiful player to watch."  

Who is Mr Manchester United? Older fans will understandably press the claims of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Bobby Charlton. It is impossible to overlook Sir Alex Ferguson, but there is only one man for the present generation. To a man they will reply Giggsy. Indeed many feel the Welshman is the greatest player ever to don that famous red shirt. Some accolade when you consider a certain George Best also plied his trade at Old Trafford.
It was fitting that Best witnessed Giggsy coming of age. In September 1992 the teenage winger scored a marvellous goal against Tottenham Hotspur. After the game George Best was interviewed on the White Hart Lane pitch.
The Stretford End idol heaped praise on the Cardiff-born winger. A star was born. Giggs continued to torment full backs and delight fans in equal measure, but surely the pinnacle came in April 1999 with 'that' goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. 
Like us all, time caught up with Ryan Giggs. The blinding pace dimmed with age and the flying winger was consigned to history. But Ryan Giggs refused to depart the Premier League stage. He forged a new career as an inventive midfielder. The milestones kept coming. Giggs is the only player to have scored a goal in every Premier League season. At the tender age of 39, Ryan Giggs played his 1,000 game for United in March 2013. What a player!
Every great team needs a great goalscorer. No matter how good you are, all teams struggle on occasions. You're having one of those days when nothing goes right. Somehow you hang in there. Then with full time approaching your star striker nicks the winner. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the man United turned to in their darkest hours. He seldom failed to deliver. His finest hour came when he netted an injury time winner in the 1999 Champions League Final. Showing razor sharp reflexes the Norwegian turned in David Beckhams left wing corner to bring the Champions League back to Old Trafford.
A supreme finisher with his head or his feet, Solskjaer once scored four goals in 12 minutes against Nottingham Forest. It is remarkable to think that he was initially regarded as a super sub. Many of his early United goals game after he climbed out of the dug out. Even in his glory days he had to jostle with Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sherringhham for a place in the starting line up. The crack marksman arrived at Old Trafford in 1996, a bargain fee of £1.5 million prised him away from Norwegian club Molde. I selected him because I felt he was a  more clinical finisher then Cole or Yorke. He scored126 in 386 appearances for the Red Devils.
Heads turned when Sir Alex Ferguson signed the bad boy of  French football. No-one ever doubted Cantona's ability but constantly questions were raised relating to his temperament. The striker rose to prominence in his homeland. However a series of clashes with officialdom blighted his progress. In 1992 Cantona was taken on by Sheffield Wednesday, but the experiment turned sour when Cantona fell out with Owls boss Trevor Francis. Yorkshire rivals Leeds United was the much-travelled forward's port of call. Cantona became an instant hero when he helped the Elland Rod club pip United to the 1991/92 First Division Title.
But within months Eric was out in the cold again when he crossed swords with Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson. Fergie ignored the flaws and took a chance. Once he pulled on a red shirt Cantona took the Premier League by storm. A wonderfully gifted player, Cantona glided across the pitch. His goals were  the stuff of fantasy. The chips against Sunderland and Sheffield United or the volley versus Wimbledon. Cantona had the technique and vision to pull off the impossible.
The old demons did briefly reappear. In 1995 the striker was sent off against Crystal Palace. As the striker headed towards the tunnel he was verbally abused by Palace fan Matthew Symonds. The Frenchman took exception to his remarks and jumped into the crowd. His kung-fu style kick on the fan stunned the football world.
The FA reacted swiftly. The United frontman was banned from competitive football for eight months. He returned in dramatic fashion, emerging from the Old Trafford tunnel to meet his adoring public. In trademark style, his shirt collar was raised and the old strutting gate was firmly in evidence. Cantona scored both goals in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool. In May 1996 he scored against the same opponents to seal a Premier League and FA Cup double. Eric Cantona was the ultimate Manchester United talisman.
This was a difficult pick, but Cristiano Ronaldo pips David Beckham for the right wing slot. You could not fault Becks' pinpoint crosses or dynamite free-kicks, but the former England skipper never scored 40 goals in a season. In all fairness most strikers let alone wide men struggle to reach that land mark, but in the 2007/08 campaign Cristiano Ronaldo bagged an incredible 42 goals in all competitions.
Like all the greats, mere statistics do not justice to Ronnie's talents. Like Beckham the Portuguese flier is a free-kick maestro. The power he generates with a limited run up is something to behold. Unusually for a winger, Ronaldo is fantastic in the air. His ability to hang in mid air has led to many headed goals. It was a Ronaldo header that put United ahead in the 2008 Champions League Final. A final they eventually won on penalties. Ironically he netted a carbon copy as helped Real Madrid knock his old side out of this season's competition. But it is those dancing feet which give full backs sleepless nights. Generally two footed, the former United has bamboozled the best.
It was a different story in his early days at Old Trafford. Ronaldo joined Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon. The Red Devils paid £12.4 million to land the 18 year old. His early displays showed signs of promise, but were plagued by inconsistency. A natural trait amongst young players. The boy wonder was often criticised for over indulging in step overs. As he matured those faults were ironed out and he developed into one of the finest players in the world. This was reflected when he joined Real Madrid for a world record fee £80 million in 2008.

  Man united team

So there you have it. That's my Manchester United team of champions. Do you agree? Would you have Becks, Stam, Nistelrooy or Van der Saar in there? Whatever your views, we'd love to hear from you.


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Colin Illingworth



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