When trying to decide which is United’s greatest ever European Night there are three matches that most people would expect you to choose, four if they are particularly fond of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Those victories in ’68, ’99 and ’08 are rightly held in high regard by United fans world over, however, in my opinion there is only one game that I could possibly choose as my favourite European night.
The Second Leg of the 1999 Champions League Semi Final against Juventus was always going to be an uphill struggle, the Turin giants held a slender advantage thanks to Antonio Conte’s away goal in the First Leg and it would have been a one goal advantage had it not been for Ryan Giggs’ injury time equaliser at Old Trafford. Juve held the edge psychologically too; the two sides had faced each other five times in the Champions League, with United managing just one victory.
The Juventus of ’99 was a completely different beast to the team that finished 7th in Serie A last season. A rock solid defence of Birindelli, Pessotto, Luliano and Ferrara protected one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Angelo Peruzzi. Their midfield included a World Cup winning captain, Didier Deschamps, a former World Player of the Year, Zinedine Zidane and one of the World’s most sought after enforcers, Edgar Davids.
Up front they had one of the greatest poachers of all time, Pippo Inzaghi, a striker so renowned for his ability to play off the shoulder of defenders that Sir Alex once joked, “That lad must have been born offside.” However, they weren’t just a team of stars, they had form and going into the game they were just ninety minutes away from their fourth successive Champions League final.
Sir Alex fielded a full strength side, with one notable exception, Giggs failed a late fitness test and whilst most expected Scholes to replace him, the gaffer opted for the pace of Jesper Blomqvist on the left wing. Schmeichel, Neville, Irwin, Johnsen, Stam, Butt, Keane, Beckham, Cole and Yorke completed the line-up.
Having rewatched the game recently, it was surprising to note how scrappy the opening exchanges were, neither side maintaining possession and the ball moving quickly from one end to the other. My dad always told me that if United survived twenty minutes they would see it through, he still says it today, even though on this occasion United didn’t survive twenty minutes and within twenty-four were 2-0 down.
Both goals came from that perpetual thorn in United’s side, Pippo Inzaghi, the first a back post finish from a Zidane cross, which Schmeichel only just failed to intercept. Despair, that slender advantage had suddenly become a decent advantage and United would have to score twice if they were to avoid extra time. The second came as a result of uncharacteristically poor defending from Jaap Stam as he allowed Pippo goal side. Stam did his best to make up the lost ground, but his desperate lunge to block the striker’s shot merely deflected the ball up, over Schmeichel and over the line.
I remember sitting on the edge of my parent’s settee, with my head in my hands, it’s as clear as if it had happened yesterday. It was at this point that my dad offered another of his favourite sayings, “they’ll do it, believe,” much as I wanted to believe, all I could think about was the fact that he had said the exact same thing just over twelve months earlier when that Trezeguet rocket found the top right corner in the Second Leg of the Quarter Finals against Monaco. What happened next, in hindsight, was a glimpse of what was to come, a very real example of the team spirit that that United team had, and an almost perfect show of the determination and dedication that each and every one of Ferguson’s teams has had. However, only a handful of those teams had Roy Keane leading them from the front.
That glancing header in the 24th minute will go down in United history as one of the most important captain’s goals ever scored. Beckham swinging in a corner from the left and Keane throwing himself through the air to meet the ball and leave Peruzzi stranded as it glided through the air and into the net. That goal, that show of strength and determination is, I think, the moment fans and players alike really started to believe. It’s testament to the man who gave us that hope that we probably showed more sadness and distress than him, when he received that booking in the 34th minute that would rule him out of the final. Sir Alex would later comment;
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player”.
Suddenly United were in the ascendancy, Cole and Yorke teasing the Juventus defence with almost telepathic movement and Beckham testing them with perfectly weighted crosses. One minute after Keane’s yellow and the scores were level, all thanks to a move that had become part and parcel of our Champions League campaign, Beckham down the right, an early ball into the box and a Yorke diving header into the ground and beyond Peruzzi. Yorke had a chance to hand United the lead towards the end of the first half, but his low strike rebounded off the post.
The second half was never going to live up to the first, but it had plenty of thrills of its own. A disallowed goal for Izaghi on 61, another goal for United as Cole made sure of our place in the final and a Beckham volley that fizzed past the post. Unfortunately the big event of the second half was the booking of Paul Scholes that meant United would be without, arguably, their greatest central midfield of all time in the final at the Nou Camp.
I’m conscious that I’m writing and writing and writing, boring you all to tears, but that’s how big a hold this game has over me. There were times when my eyes welled up as I wrote this, the memories are clear and the emotions raw, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, even though we all know what happened next, but that’s a story for another European Night.
About Simon McPolin
Simon is one half of the Debatable Decisions team, a blog which analyses the performance of referees and takes to task the players who would rather cheat than perform. Their Decisions League Table aims to prove which teams really do get the rub of the green more often than not and which teams suffer most at the hands of the man in black. A die hard United fan, he takes all things MUFC far too seriously and hopes that he has found a home to vent and rant with Can They Score. Check out his blog, Debatable Decisions, and follow him on Twitter here.