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Manchester United FC reached the UEFA Champions League final for the first time since winning the competition nine years ago as Paul Scholes's spectacular early strike proved enough to edge a pulsating semi-final against FC Barcelona.
Fittingly it was the one survivor of that 1998/99 squad in the starting lineup, Scholes – who missed the 2-1 final victory against FC Bayern München through suspension, and had been guaranteed his place in this season's showpiece by Sir Alex Ferguson provided United got there – who scored the only goal of the tie. The midfielder collected a loose pass from Gianluca Zambrotta and unleashed a viciously swerving long-range shot into the top corner. Barcelona pressed for a way back but struggled to create chances against a well-marshalled United defence, whose discipline and commitment ensured the first all-English final in European Champion Clubs' Cup history, against Chelsea FC or Liverpool FC in Moscow on 21 May.
United had been urged to "enjoy it" by Ryan Giggs but it was the visitors who settled first, producing some neat interplay with Lionel Messi making two threatening runs at a United back line shorn of Nemanja Vidić due to a facial injury. If Barça had the better of the opening exchanges, however, United turned the tide emphatically in the 14th minute as Zambrotta dispossessed Cristiano Ronaldo on the edge of the area only to direct his pass straight at Scholes, who duly thumped an unstoppable effort past Víctor Valdés from 25 metres.
The celebrations reverberated around Old Trafford although a reminder of the danger still posed by Barcelona was not long in coming. Messi skipped past Scholes and inside Wes Brown before forcing Edwin van der Sar to palm away his well-directed attempt from just outside the box. Almost instantly Ji-Sung Park might have increased United's lead, side-footing Ronaldo's left-wing centre centimetres past the far post as the hosts sought to capitalise on a goal which had visibly shaken the Blaugrana.
Having weathered that ten-minute storm, Barça regrouped and began to probe again, Deco narrowly missing the target from the edge of the area on two occasions just past the half-hour. For their part, United – missing Wayne Rooney with a hip injury – put together several incisive attacks as half-time approached, and the busy Park delivered a right-wing cross which Nani glanced wide from the most promising of these raids.
In contrast to the first period, United seized the initiative as the second half started and it took Eric Abidal's timely intervention to deny Nani the chance to touch in Ronaldo's cross. Valdés then beat away Carlos Tévez's left-foot drive after the Argentinian had surged clear down the left. Frank Rijkaard's men had shown enough on the break to suggest United could not neglect their defensive duties, however, and Brown was sufficiently alert to deflect Deco's angled shot wide of the near post before a long-range free-kick from the same player struck the United wall and span wide.
Thierry Henry and Bojan Krkić were introduced to the action although Messi remained the most likely source of an equaliser, sending a frisson of nervous tension around the ground every time he picked up possession, but in the main he was crowded out by United's rearguard. Henry headed a corner straight at Van der Sar and had a curling effort comfortably saved by the goalkeeper as United held their nerve in a tense finale. Theirs is the opportunity to be crowned European champions for the third time.
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