Great goals aren’t just about the purity of a strike, the quality of the team work or the virtuosity of an individual. They’re often about a stage and a significance. They have meaning and beauty. There can be a symbolism.
Barcelona figured prominently in Paul Scholes’s career long before April 29, 2008. He was defined by his absence; a suspended, suited spectator when Manchester United won the Champions League at the Camp Nou in 1999. As the years ticked by, it felt ever likelier that he and Roy Keane would be twinned in their European experiences, missing the biggest game of their careers, possessing the medals but not the experience of contributing in the final.
Keane self-combusted and departed during United’s awful autumn of 2005. Scholes missed the second half of the season with blurred vision. Sir Alex Ferguson had looked a manager in terminal decline, United a mediocre side.
Yet though they were rejuvenated, 2007 brought a fourth Champions League semi-final of Scholes’s career. For the fourth time, there would be no final for him. Milan overcame an injury-hit United side.
So 2008, deep into his 34th year, seemed a last chance; as United had only reached two European Cup finals, few could have expected them to reach three in four years, or Scholes to eventually retire for a second time when nearer 39 than 38.
Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona were fraying and decaying, but still Europe’s most talented team. Scholes played his part in a disciplined display to earn a stalemate in Catalonia. As a sign of his importance, he was rested for the defeat to Chelsea that was sandwiched by the two legs.
The United crowd had long chanted “he scores goals” about Scholes – but by April 2008, he didn’t. He’d gone eight months and 28 games without finding the net. It was a sign of his deeper role.
But his ball-striking ability remained intact, and so he proved in the 14th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo embarked on a dribble. Gianluca Zambrotta’s clearance was lazy. Scholes took one touch to tee himself up. His second was lashed from 25 yards, technique and ferocity in one unstoppable package; an outside-of-the-boot strike that arced away from Victor Valdes and nestled in the top corner.
One of those who idolised Scholes, Xavi, was directly behind the Mancunian, able to see it curling beyond his goalkeeper.
In subsequent years, it became almost clichéd to praise Scholes. Then, perhaps, there was the sense that some outside of the purists, his fellow players and the United faithful, could overlook a self-effacing figure who shunned the limelight. But not on this occasion.
It was a goal out of Steven Gerrard’s playbook. It was one of 155 Scholes scored for United and, as thunderous as volleys against Bradford and Aston Villa were, the very best.
With Carlos Tevez running marathons in attack and Wes Brown defending defiantly, it secured Ferguson’s 700th win as United manager. It also brought an echo of 1968, when the similarly long-serving Bill Foulkes scored the goal to take United to their first European Cup final.
Each added to the sense of a greater narrative and Ferguson, the ruthless sentimentalist, responded by promising Scholes would start in the showpiece in Moscow. He duly did.
GREATEST GOAL Hunter Godson on Robbie Keane vs Brighton, 2005
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