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Manchester United were trying to rediscover their swagger when they travelled to Chelsea in August 2002. Mikael Silvestre, one of the Red Devils' star men that day, recalls the game and what became a successful season.
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 17/01/14 11:47am
'Trophyless' is a word rarely associated with Manchester United in recent times.
Since the Premier League came into being in 1992, the Red Devils have endured only five seasons without major silverware - and even in three of those, they at least kicked off the campaign under Sir Alex Ferguson by lifting the Community Shield. David Moyes may end up looking back on his Shield success over Wigan at Wembley last August with even fonder memories, should there be no new additions to the Old Trafford cabinet come May.
As United travel to Chelsea this weekend for a Sky Sports' Super Sunday clash, cast your mind back over a decade to a time when they were again trying to get off the ropes - relatively speaking, at least. In 2001/02, Ferguson's men had finished third (very poor, by their high standards), conceding a hefty 45 goals; been knocked out of both domestic cups in early rounds; and failed to get past Bayer Leverkusen to reach the Champions League final. Indifferent early-season form, partly attributed to Ferguson having initially announced his intention to 'hang up the hairdryer' that coming summer, meant that even United's usual post-January improvement couldn't deliver the goods.
However, having announced that U-turn on his retirement a few months previously, Ferguson went into the 2002/03 campaign with renewed vigour - and bolstered by the £30million record-signing of Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United. In addition, Carlos Queiroz's arrival as assistant manager (first-team coach Mike Phelan had been filling in after Steve McClaren's switch to Middlesbrough) lifted the mood at Carrington.
"Your hunger for trophies is higher because you didn't get any the previous season," said former United defender Mikael Silvestre, speaking to SkySports.com this week. "You're disappointed and angry going into the summer, but you soon get the optimism back when you return. Rio was a great addition to the squad - I was playing left-back, but I preferred to play centre-back and I hoped to get to play with him.
"Carlos coming in was also a good change - he brought much more focus to our tactics, like the other continental coaches coming into the English game had done."
But after six league games, United had mustered only eight points - their worst start to a Premier League season until the current campaign. There were two narrow 1-0 home wins over West Brom and Middlesbrough; two narrow 1-0 defeats to Bolton and Leeds; a 1-1 draw at Sunderland, and a thrilling 2-2 draw at Chelsea.
"We should have won those games easily," said Ferguson, referring to the latter three - but it was the clash at Stamford Bridge in particular that really rankled with the Scot.
Before kick-off on a balmy Friday night in August, all the talk was about Juan Sebastian Veron - dropped to the bench by Ferguson. The Argentinian's transfer fee from Lazio in July 2001 had been almost as great as that of Ferdinand but he had endured a disappointing first season at Old Trafford and was struggling to influence games.
"Seba came when we had some difficulties," said Silvestre, "but he was a world-class player. It was just that his style wouldn't seem to adapt to the Premier League. The Champions League was more his type of football; it was what he was made for, in Italy and Argentina. He was better in those games because we had more possession, he was more in control and he could express his talent." A year later, Veron would be sold to Chelsea for half of what United had paid for him. Silvestre adds: "I knew he wasn't really happy under the grey skies of Manchester! And it was because of the way we played too."
That style was rather too frantic for a player of Veron's liking, but it was certainly effective in the league and the clash at Chelsea was a good example. The Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter described it as "breathless, pulsating stuff" and with Gianfranco Zola in tandem with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink - who was being strongly linked with a move to Barcelona at the time - Claudio Ranieri's Blues boasted a fearsome attack.
The match was just three minutes old when a Bolo Zenden free-kick, delivered into that corridor of uncertainty from wide on the right, was diverted past United goalkeeper Roy Carroll by William Gallas.
Hasselbaink saw a shot across goal bounce wide as Chelsea threatened to get well on top, but it was United who would score next on 26 minutes as David Beckham brought down Silvestre's outstanding 60-yard crossfield pass, came inside Celestine Babayaro and scored past Carlo Cudicini.
The home side's pressure resumed, however, and after Zola had gone close, Chelsea regained the lead just before the interval. Zenden managed to collect the ball back having passed to Frank Lampard and he pinged an excellent left-footed effort into the top corner.
Whatever Ferguson said (or yelled) at half-time had the desired effect as United came out of the blocks with heart and desire for the second half. Beckham tested the frame of Cudicini's goal, with the Italian then saving Roy Keane's stinging follow-up drive. Then, just before the hour mark, came the game's most controversial moment. Keane lifted the ball over the Chelsea defence for Paul Scholes to run onto, into the area. As the England midfielder went between Marcel Desailly and Cudicini, the latter stretched for the ball and Scholes went to ground. Referee Graham Poll waved away the appeals, but TV replays indicated it should have been a penalty.
United wouldn't have to wait too long for another equaliser, though. With a third of the game remaining, Silvestre bombed down the left once more and cut a pass back perfectly for Ryan Giggs to level once more, with what was his 100th United goal.
The visitors had late chances to take all three points but neither Ruud van Nistelrooy nor Keane could find a finish. Ferguson and Ranieri shook hands at the final whistle, but the Scot was still staggered at Poll's refusal to point to the spot. "Everyone says it was a clear penalty," Ferguson said. "You are going to have to face these obstacles, I'm afraid. We're up against it a lot of times but we just have to find a way around it."
It was certainly a good result though, and Silvestre adds: "Zola and Hasselbaink were one of the top partnerships in Europe at the time. It's always tough playing away at Stamford Bridge, and having to come from behind twice was a good feeling."
The Frenchman ended up back in central defence in November time. "That switch happened when we played in Basel, in the middle of the game. John (O'Shea) went to left-back. It felt right, so we kept that shape at the back. We ended up doing better in the second half of the season, like United always seem to do."
There were some impressive victories - 4-0 at home to Liverpool, and 6-2 at Newcastle - and Silvestre himself was responsible for securing all three points at home to bitter rivals Leeds. "Maybe I should have scored more goals on corners!" he recalls. "But it's always nice when you score the winning goal at Old Trafford."
United were on a roll and they overhauled Arsenal's eight-point lead, eventually ending up with a five-point advantage at the top. The Premier League trophy was back in United's clutches for the eighth time in 11 years.
As for this Sunday's meeting, Silvestre says: "It's an interesting game. United are a side who could break Jose Mourinho's long unbeaten home league run (which now stands at 70 games) - not if you look at recent performances perhaps, but in terms of character the team has what it takes to go there and get a win. It will be difficult of course, but that record's got to end at some point.
"After beating Swansea last weekend, you have to be optimistic. A nine-point gap shows that United have been lacking in consistency, but I don't see Chelsea as being that much of a better team."
As for targets, he says: "Qualifying for the Champions League next season would definitely represent success for United at this moment in time."
Silvestre himself is gearing up for a pre-season training return at Portland Timbers, as they begin preparations for the 2014 MLS campaign. The 36-year-old suffered a cruciate ligament injury last season but is now fully fit and raring to go.
"I was back in training with the team towards the end of last season, and I've been putting in the hard work myself too," he adds. "Last season, we were close (the Timbers lost the Western Conference final to Real Salt Lake) so our target now must be to reach the MLS Cup final.
"The MLS is growing slowly but surely but you can see with Jermain Defoe coming to Toronto that players are still very attracted to playing in America."
Away from football, one of Silvestre's major passions is rum (specifically, rhum) - his company R. St Barth, based in the West Indies, produces a much-admired luxury beverage.
"The States is our main market, then the UK and then France," he adds. "It's growing all the time."
The rum is aged for 12 years before being bottled, so some of this year's batch will actually date from the time of that 2002 Chelsea v United clash - truly a vintage affair.
Watch Chelsea v Manchester United live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Sunday, with coverage underway from 3.30pm.