Every so often, a game comes along that has a little bit of everything. Intrigue, some strange team selections, plenty of goals (of high quality), and some cult hero moments. When games like that are Champions League quarter finals between two of the biggest clubs in world football, they only get better.
One such game was the 2003 quarter final second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford. The first leg at the Bernabeu had finished 3-1 to Real, leaving United with an away goal to cling on to as they prepared for the second leg.
These were two great teams, with mouthwatering matchups across the pitch. Zinedine Zidane faced Roy Keane in midfield – two of the best ever in their positions. Ronaldo up front for Real was matched by Ruud van Nistelrooy leading the line for United.
Both managers made some intriguing selection choices, with Alex Ferguson dropping David Beckham to the bench and Vicente del Bosque recalling Englishman Steve McManaman to play alongside Zidane and Claude Makelele in the Real midfield.
Without question, though, the greatest matchup of all pitted Luis Figo, world player of the year for 2001, against the might of Waterford’s John O’Shea.
The idea of two Irish players starting a Champions League quarter final is a distant memory now, but O’Shea and Keane were both vital cogs in United’s machine in 2003. Keane was among the world's best players, but it was O'Shea that had perhaps the most iconic moment of the entire match.
To nutmeg another player is something everyone dreams of. Whether you're playing five-a-side or playing in the World Cup, it's just a fantastic laugh if you can pull it off. They're usually executed by wingers or strikers though, so when a defender does it, you sit up and take notice. And when a defender does it to a former world player of the year, you take a bit more notice. And when a defender hailing from Waterford does it to a former world player of the year and brushes it off like it didn't even happen? Well, you get this.
It should be a bank holiday in Waterford, and a day of mourning in Portugal.
Happy John O'Shea Nutmegged Figo day!!!pic.twitter.com/DysdYH8l1r
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) April 23, 2021
Everything about the clip remains iconic. From the nutmeg itself, to O'Shea gleefully running away with the ball, to the fact that the same phone-camera video of the incident has been circulating for years now, completely cutting out the scoreboard and timestamp. It's a moment frozen in time, an iconic moment in the career of one of Ireland's greatest, that will never die.
But I digress. Back to the game at hand. At this stage of his career, the Brazilian Ronaldo was at the absolute peak of his powers. He was coming off the back of an eight-goal haul at the 2002 World Cup and fit right in in this Real Madrid team packed with superstars.
He quickly put his prowess to good use, putting paid to any hopes United had by dashing their away goal advantage within the first 20 minutes. Ruud van Nistelrooy pulled one back to make it 1-1 at half-time, but Real came out firing once again in the second half, and a second from Ronaldo meant United now had to score 5 on the night to go through.
The game was moving at a frantic tempo now, and United clawed another goal back straight away with one of the funniest own goals we've seen in a long time. Ivan Helguera completely lost his footing and almost wrapped his leg around the ball to squeeze it past his own keeper with a skillful backheel.
Ronaldo was a man on a mission, though. In maybe his finest hour, he picked the ball up forty-or-so yards away from goal on the hour mark, looked up and fired the ball past Fabien Barthez in the United goal. It wasn't just the hat-trick from Ronaldo that blew everyone away, but the incredible quality of every goal he scored. This was one of the world's best players, having one of his best ever games, on the biggest stage.
Enter David Beckham. The man who famously had a falling out with his manager that season that turned physical came off the bench with half an hour still to play and immediately contributed one of the best goals of his entire career with an incredible free-kick. Iker Casillas' reaction tells you everything you need to know, as he just watches in awe as the kick clips the underside of the bar and nestles in the net.
Beckham scoring freekick Vs Madrid in OT, 2003 pic.twitter.com/9IUDtuuYco
— عبدالرحمن (@iAbdelrahmanMU) March 4, 2013
Beckham got himself a scrappy second in the dying moments, meaning United won 4-3 on the night, but this was not to be their year. Regardless of the result, all the fans watching felt privileged to have watched a game of such a high standard. In a touching moment, Ronaldo was given a standing ovation by the home crowd as he left the pitch - a mark of just how incredible his performance had been.
It was the end of an era in many ways. That summer, Beckham left United to sign for none other than Real Madrid. Ronaldo's career from then on was ravaged by injuries. Another man by the name of Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford that summer to take Beckham's place. Roy Keane never played another Champions League quarter-final for Man United. And, try as he may have, John O'Shea never managed to nutmeg Lionel Messi before his retirement.
But, much like neutral fans across the world, they will always have the 2003 quarter final between Man United and Real Madrid, one of the greatest games in the history of the Champions League.