This season represents many things, some of which might be unrepeatable on these pages. For all the negative and frustrating moments over the past few months, it is also a season that represents another Manchester United attempt at lifting a European title. This Wednesday offers United a unique opportunity to add a trophy that, for better or worse, has eluded a burgeoning cabinet thus far. Europa League victory might well represent the ‘bare minimum’ this season, but would help José Mourinho achieve his season’s goal of returning to the Champions League.
Despite the sizable number of final opportunities, United’s success in Europe has been underwhelming for a club that bills itself as the world’s biggest. As Mourinho and company attempt to set up a brighter future, with a third piece of silverware this season, it is an opportune time to look back on previous European battles, won and lost.
European Cup Champions – Winners – Benfica vs Manchester United – 29 May 1968
One of the traits most tied to Sir Matt Busby was his desire to break the mould, apparent in how he coveted European success. Against the wishes of the English FA, Busby marched his men into Europe in its second season of existence. Had it not been for the devastating Munich Air Disaster, Busby may have taken his side to European glory 10 years prior to the 1968 final. After essentially rebuilding his side from the ground up, he walked his side out onto the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium on May 29 1968, with the goal of becoming the first English side to achieve success in the European Cup.
Much of the build up focused on two of the highest regarded players in world football at the time: George Best and Eusebio. Both players offered flair and audacity, and their inclusion promised goals in spades. Despite this, it wasn’t until the second half when Bobby Charlton’s header broke the deadlock. Jaime Graca managed to find an equalizer with little over 10 minutes to play, ensuring extra time decided the tie.
Best delivered on his end of the bargain, rounding Jose Henrique to put United up after only two minutes of extra time and then Brian Kidd, stepping in for the injured Dennis Law, made the scoreline to 3-1. It was only fitting, then that Bobby Charlton, a surviving member of the air disaster, should double his tally, finishing the scoring after 99 minutes.
Victory over Benfica in 1968 delivered a dream 15 years in the making. United had become a force both at home and abroad, and very few could discount the club’s standing as one of the titans of the game. While it would be a few decades before that feat was repeated, United’s honour proved to be the catalyst for further successes in Europe for English sides.
European Cup Winners’ Cup – Winners – Manchester United vs Barcelona – 15 May 1991
Before the UEFA’s decision to wrap two competitions into one, the Cup Winners’ Cup offered a European place for the winners of each national domestic cup. Due to the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, English clubs had been excluded from European competition, however that expulsion was lifted for the 1990/91 season. In 1990, an Alex Ferguson-led United team bested Crystal Palace in the FA Cup to secure a seat at the newly reopened European table.
Ferguson’s early years were plagued by missteps in league campaigns, often falling back on cup runs to buy more time. As Leeds United lifted the final Division One title before the formation of the Premier League, focus had well and truly turned to the Cup Winners’ Cup campaign, in which Ferguson’s side was aiming to taste European glory for the first time in 23 years – and to become the first side in England to win a European title since the continental ban.
Much like the 1968 final, United drew first blood, this time through a Mark Hughes, who tapped in a Steve Bruce header after 67 minutes. Whether the ball had already crossed the line is subject to continuing debate! Hughes doubled his haul seven minutes later, with deft effort with the outside of his boot. No controversy over who could claim that goal.
Current Everton boss Ronald Koeman pulled one back for a rattled Barcelona, but the Catalan giants couldn’t muster a comeback. In fact a late Barça strike was ruled out for offside and an effort cleared off the line, but United ran out worthy winners.
With the FA Cup a year previous, and victory in Europe’s then third tier competition, Ferguson’s reign was starting to yield return on the lofty promises of his arrival. His side would win achieve league glory a season later, ending a 26-year drought.
Champions League – Winners – Manchester United vs Bayern Munich – 26 May 1999
It is perhaps the greatest achievement in English football, the 1998/99 season was one saved for Hollywood features and best-selling works of fiction. For all the domestic successes since United’s victory over Barcelona in 1991 – four league titles, two FA Cup victories, and a League Cup honour – United hadn’t challenged in Europe. UEFA’s restructuring of the Champions League in 1992 meant multiple sides would enter Europe’s premier competition, meaning, despite a second place finish the season prior, United earned a shot at the biggest prize in European football.
Ferguson had his sights set on avenging a disappointing collapse in the previous year’s Premier League, squandering an 11 point lead at the top of the table as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal won a league and cup double.
Add to the narrative United’s frustrations in Europe, including a devastating semi-final defeat to Borussia Dortmund in 1997, and it was clear why Ferguson would set his sights on wrestling the domestic title from Wenger, as well as returning United to the pinnacle of European football. Ferguson’s team secured parts one and two of the treble with a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur on the last day of the league season, and a 2-0 victory over Newcastle United in the FA Cup final.
United’s opponents in the 1999 final were also looking to complete a treble – and it was Munich that looked the better side for long stretches of the tie, scoring in the sixth minute thanks to Mario Basler’s free kick. United’s chances were limited, and without both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, a makeshift central midfield partnership of Nicky Butt and David Beckham failed to impose itself on the tie.
United laboured, kept in the game through a combination of poor German finishing and sheer fortune. Ferguson opted to roll the dice as the minutes ticked by, throwing on both Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, as his men searched for an equaliser. As the Fourth Official indicated an additional 3 added minutes, Solskjaer forced a save from Oliver Kahn, resulting in a corner.
Goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel made his way forward as Beckham swung in the corner. Dwight Yorke’s effort was cleared, but only as far as Ryan Giggs. The rest echoes in Clive Tyldesley’s commentary: “Clear…Giggs with the shot- SHERINGHAM!” Words that leave goosebumps on the arm. By hook or by crook, Ferguson’s side was back in the game.
Mere seconds after the game resumed, the red wave crashed over Bayern once more, forcing another corner. Over to Clive. “Beckham, into Sheringham AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!”. In the space of 2 minutes and 17 seconds, United had gone from Champions League runners up to delirious treble winners – a feat that no English team has managed to match since.
Champions League – Winners – Manchester United vs Chelsea – 21 May 2008
One of Ferguson’s most prominent regrets, he says, is that he didn’t win the Champions League more often. By 2008 he had only overseen just one successful Champions League campaign, although there was more than a handful of semi-final defeats along the way.
The 2007/08 season will be remembered as the year two English sides competed a Champions League season, for the first and only thus far only time. English club football was enjoying a period of brief dominance, with three English sides competing in the semi-finals, for a berth in the final at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
As has become a European habit, United had to overcome Barcelona. After an incredibly tight scoreless draw at Camp Nou, in which Cristiano Ronaldo missed an early penalty and United defended for the next 89 minutes, the fixture was to be settled in Manchester. Knowing that an away goal would all but end United’s chances, the Reds went in search of the opening goal, and were rewarded for a sense of adventure with a Paul Scholes wonderful strike after 14 minutes.
Stout defending followed, with both Deco and Thierry Henry threatening to spoil United’s party, only for the Reds to hold firm and secure an all-English final against Chelsea, who had beaten Liverpool after extra time.
United controlled large parts of the first half, capitalising on the dominance with a Wes Brown assisted Cristiano Ronaldo header in the 24th minute. United continued to search for a second, with Carlos Tevez denied by Petr Cech on two occasions.
Chelsea managed a rare attack and Michael Essien’s effort deflected into the path of Frank Lampard. The combination of the ball’s change in direction, and the appalling state of the pitch, caused Edwin van der Sar to lose his footing, and the Englishman converted to make it 1-1.
The second half was a reverse of the first, with Chelsea largely in control, buoyed by the change in momentum that Lampard’s goal had brought. United survived, much like 1999, thanks to poor finishing and good fortune. Despite hitting the post, the Blues couldn’t find a winner, and extra time was required. Chelsea came the closest to winning it, with Lampard hitting the crossbar. Didier Drogba was shown a red card for slapping Nemanja Vidic during a 22 man argument, and it went to penalties.
United won the toss and opted to go first, with Carlos Tevez and then Michael Carrick converting for United, with Michael Ballack and Juliano Belletti scoring for Chelsea. Ronaldo stepped up for the third, only for the 42 goal man to be denied by Cech. Lampard converted, leaving United 2-3 down. As Own Hargreaves, Ashley Cole, and Nani slotted in their efforts, the match winning penalty fell on the shoulders of Chelsea captain John Terry. Terry fell victim to the poor state of the turf, slipping as he went to take his shot. His effort subsequently veered off the post – United reprieved.
Anderson and Salomon Kalou scored in sudden death, and Ryan Giggs, making his record-breaking 759th appearance for the club, skewed his penalty into the bottom corner. Nicolas Anelka stood up to play his part, but van der Sar guessed correctly, and saved the Frenchman’s effort. United won 6-5 on penalties, and lifted the European Cup for a third time.
Champions League – Runners Up – Barcelona vs Manchester United – 27/05/2009
The 2008/09 season was an odd one for the club. It was the first season the side lifted the FIFA Club World Cup, and successes in the Premier League and League Cup offered a more than reasonable haul. Yet, it was also a campaign tinged with disappointments – a penalty shoot-out loss in the FA Cup semi-final, and the Champions League final defeat. Ferguson’s side was within touching distance of winning five trophies that year. The team was also in a good position to break new ground and become the first side to retain the Champions League since the 1992 restructure.
United faced Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in Rome. The Reds had comfortably dispatched Arsenal in the semi-final, winning 4-1 on aggregate, and Barcelona had beaten Chelsea, denying a rematch of the previous season’s final.
Barcelona was a side on the rise though – and Guardiola’s side was looking to complete a treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey, and Champions League. Yet, for the opening 10 minutes, Pep’s side was unable to keep up with United’s speed, with Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney at the peak of their powers. Despite an early period of dominance, United failed to take advantage of the opportunity, and were soundly punished but a first half Samuel Eto’o strike.
It was a goal that shifted momentum in Barcelona’s favour, and United struggled to regain a footing from that point. Guardiola’s tiki-taka pass and move style of football had dominated home and away all season. It was one that left the midfield three of Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, and Anderson, unable to impose their game on the tie, with Barcelona moving around the park with relative ease.
The second half yielded little improvement. Even with the quartet of Ronaldo, Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Dimitar Berbatov on the field, it was Barcelona who managed to find the next goal, with Messi meeting a Xavi cross to double the Catalans’ lead. United couldn’t find a response – it was the start of Barcelona’s domination of both Spanish and European football.
Champions League – Runners Up – Barcelona vs Manchester United – 28 May 2011
The most recent of United’s European finals – the 2011 Champions League final – is one that represented revenge. Ferguson was adamant, following the defeat only two years earlier, that he knew how to defeat the Catalan giants, and a successful Premier League campaign gave United fans hope heading into the final at Wembley Stadium.
As with 2009, United started the brighter of the two sides, however Javier Hernandez was unable to find the back of the net with a good chance. Barcelona grew into the game, however and, as with 2009, took the lead – Pedro finding the net in the 27th minute.
United responded this time, with Wayne Rooney striking in the 34th minute. It made little difference, as Barcelona regained the lead through Lionel Messi after 54 minutes and then David Villa added a third after 69. United missed a couple of half chances through Rooney and Nani, but the game was played out to a greatly disappointing 3-1 defeat. Ferguson dubbed that Barcelona side the greatest he has ever faced. He wasn’t wrong.