Emotions will run high for Olympique de Marseille when they hunt down a UEFA Champions League quarter-final berth at Manchester United FC on Tuesday, but for the French club's defender Gabriel Heinze the trip to Old Trafford will evoke an even greater range of feelings.
Heinze spent three years with United and made an instant impression with the team's supporters, being chosen as their player of the season for 2004/05 before helping Sir Alex Ferguson's men claim the Premier League title in his final campaign. Now, as the Argentinian international prepares to return with the round of 16 tie level at 0-0, all those memories have started flooding back.
"My first big moment at Old Trafford was when the fans and my team voted me as best player," he said. "
To hear the fans singing 'Argentina, Argentina' was very emotional; my family was there as well. It's something I'll never forget for the rest of my life. To go on to win the domestic league title with Manchester United – my first – was unforgettable. I have so many great memories that I can't pick one out above the rest."
Since Heinze left for Real Madrid CF in August 2007, his former side have continued to prosper, collecting two more Premier League crowns as well as the UEFA Champions League in 2007/08. As far as the 32-year-old is concerned, they owe that success to continuity in the dugout and the longevity of key performers.
"I think it's down to the person in charge, the person who keeps the club at the highest level – Alex Ferguson, plus all the players they have in the squad," said Heinze. "The top players there are very important. Players like Ryan Giggs or [Paul] Scholes command the squad and support it. I experienced that when I was there, the way they act before and during a match. To have named Ryan Giggs as the club's best ever player says it all."
While Marseille remain hopeful of causing an upset in Manchester, where a score draw would be enough to send them through, Heinze feels the 1992/93 winners still have a long way to go before they can be considered in the same bracket as his former outfits. "Every team has its own structure and its own world around it, but Olympique de Marseille are still a few steps behind Real Madrid and United," he said.
"This is a team that's still developing; they've played in the Champions League for the last few years and have been growing from year to year, and last season we even managed to win the domestic league after 18 years without success. But in comparison to the big powerhouses I played with like Real Madrid and Manchester United, this club still has some way to go."
Whatever happens at Old Trafford, however, Heinze is hopeful OM can continue their growth by defending the Ligue 1 title they sealed for the first time since 1991/92 last May. "You can feel the joy and hope of this young team, who want to make people happy," he explained. "The joy and hope are really incredible and we rely on that.
We have great quality in this team to achieve our objectives and I believe that we can do it. It'll be very hard, but I believe in it."
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