The moment the latest Champions league draw threw together the names Manchester and Munchen thoughts inevitably turn to the third greatest night of my life. On this site we couldn’t be more wrapped in nostalgia of the miracle of Camp Nou. Our name, logo, pod intro and outro are dedicated to that most wondrous of occasions. No doubt there will be many excellent recollections of that encounter with Germany’s finest ahead of the latest bout between the two European heavyweights. This isn’t one of them. I want to look back at a game that has become a forgotten gem. An intimidating visit to Southern Germany that would prove to be a crucial step on the way to greatness.
The Manchester United that travelled to Munich on 30th September 1998 were a far cry from the silverware magnets they would come to be. In the ten games played, United had won just four. On the road they had stuttered to goalless draws in Poland and East London. Arsenal put three past them at Highbury to add to the three goal demolition in the Wembley curtain raiser. Most staggeringly of all given how the team is eulogised today, they were yet to score a goal away from Old Trafford. Ferguson was yet to settle on the key combination in attack; the Yorke and Cole bromance would not blossom until three days later at The Dell. An embarrassment of attacking riches on paper was not translating to chemistry on the field (imagine that?). Problems were apparent at both ends of the field; Jaap Stam was still finding his feet meaning Gary Neville had been moved inside to hold his hand through matches and organise an incoherent back four. A swashbuckling display at home to Barcelona hinted of the joyous football to come but the depressing reality was that the second decent side to play United had again found them a generous opponent in the three all draw. Conceding too often and not scoring enough was hardly the recipe for European glory.
Grounds for optimism were not entirely absent. A comfortable home win over Liverpool was the perfect morale boost ahead of the tie, and in the previous tie Bayern had somehow contrived to lose to Brondby; one of the worst teams United I have ever seen in the Champions League. However this result was the definition of an anomaly. In contrast to United, Munich had been relentless home and away in the Bundesliga. Stefan Effenberg was making a case for being considered the most complete midfielder in Europe at the time, ably assisted by the ever dependable Jeremies and fatigue-resistant Salihamidzic. A platform for midfield excellence was provided by an experienced back line led by Lothar Mattheus despite accusation his selection was based on status rather than merit. If United found their way past the barrier presented by Mattheus, Babbel, Strunze, Linke and Lizarazu they would be faced with Oliver Kahn. Kahn was just about the only goalkeeper able to challenge Schmeichel in the vocal ego stakes; he was also a phenomenally talented goalkeeper. The principle threat United would have to deal with would come from Elber. The striker suffered the misfortune of being around at a time when world class Brazilian strikers were ten a penny. I always felt there were similarities between Elber and Andy Cole; both were much malligned for profligacy despite creating an incredible number of chances for themselves. Elber, like Cole, was rarely desrcibed as a forward of the highest class despite ample evidence to warrant the recognition. United were about to face a striker on the hottest of streaks having failed to strike in only one game all season.
The Fergie tombola might seem like a recent phenomenon but it had an early outing in Bavaria. The back four comprised three full backs and Big Jaap. The absence of Butt and Johnsen removed Ferguson’s inclination to opt for caution when travelling, so Keane, Scholes and Beckham lined up in their traditional roles. Familiar injury problems ruled out Giggs so Jesper Blomqvist would take on the reliable understudy role he would play so crucialy throughout the campaign. In attack the surprise pairing was Yorke and Sheringham. The two men had not played together and the suspicion amongst many fans was that Yorke’s arrival was a replacement for the ageing number ten. They certainly didn’t appear a natural fit with neither boasting the inclination or burst of pace to threaten in behind. Pace was clearly lacking in the United eleven suggesting containment would be the order of the day unless Scholes could break through the lines with timed runs from deep.
Things didn’t start well for United. The home side were allowed to play ‘tippy tappy’ unhindered in the 18 yard box and played in the clearly offside Elber to open the scoring. Despite seven white shirts loitering in their own area United were simply unable to get close to their opponents. The sheer physicality of Carsten Jancker holding Gary Neville effortlessly at bay did not bode well for the game ahead. Quite why it was Neville tasked with stopping the giant teuton and not Big Jaap was no doubt politely enquired about by the manager at the break. It was indicative of the defensive confusion that marred the first third of the season before Stam emerged as United premier defender of the modern age. However United stayed in the game and in keeping with their famous arrogance, Bayern seemed confident of scoring at will and in no rush to add to their number with time on their side. Half an hour played and a defining moment in United’s season arrived. Casual defending from Bayern playing out from the back saw Beckham direct a loose pass infield to Sheringham; cue a beautifully weighted pass through to Beckham who without breaking stride delivered the ball perfectly onto the head of Dwight Yorke. It was a deceptively simplistic combination that would be repeated to devastating effect over and over in the months ahead. United were back on terms and just as they had against Barcelona, began to demonstrate why they were a team ready to mix it with the very best. Challenges were snapped into and with Keane beginning to dominate Effenberg the balance of the game was shifting. The match was finely poised at one each at half time.
Fifteen minutes with Ferguson must be quite an experience. So often down the years we saw United come out after half term seemingly able to move up a gear. For the final fifteen minutes of the first half they were good, for the first fifteen minutes of the second half they were better. The reward was fortunate but deserved. Phil Neviile took an absolute age to take a free kick, seemingly threatening to play the ball to every player on the field before settling on a looping pass towards the head of Yorke. Dwight did as Dwight does and found a team mate, cue the impish Scholes dashing headlong towards the Munich defence. In his later years we relished the calm, technical brilliance of the man; spraying passes with grace and deadly accuracy. The 1999 version was a different beast. Lurking on the edges Scholes would seize upon the merest hint of an error and turn it into a goal. In a blur of ginger, Bavarians parted like the red sea and through a ramshackle combination of chest, heel, bounce and shin United were ahead. It was a portent of things to come that the shellshocked Bayern defenders were left strewn across the turf unsure as to what had just happened. For Lothar Mattheus’ sake it would be better if noone knew. His comedy backheel would not have been out of place in his car crash performance against Romania 19 months later.
Victory would elude United. Not for the first time they showed a frustration inability to kill off opponents and it was fitting for this fixture that a late goal would settle the outcome. The clock was approaching ninety minutes as Lizarazu launched a good old fashioned long throw into our box. Incomprehensibly the (once) great Dane charged off his line and unleashed a punch of such velocity had he made contact the ball would have been propelled far into the stands. Had he made contact. Bayern accepted the gift, turning the ball home via the unfortunate Sheringham. I remember at the time being furious at Sheringham for not clearing his lines. A baseless criticism but one aired by many Reds who had identified Teddy as the team whipping boy. Like the Fergie tombola, United fans taking pleasure in victimising our own players is not a recent phenomenon. Food for thought for Mr Cleverley, all you need to do is equalise in the European Cup final and eternal adoration will be yours. The match ended with honours even, and despite frustration at a missed opportunity it was with satisfaction that fans could reflect on the performance.
The draw in Munich is in some ways the forgotten gem of the treble campaign. The drama and courage of exploits in Barcelona, Milan and Turin are the most keenly told stories yet the Autumn performance was a platform on which later triumphs were built. It was the game which proved Ferguson could trust the Keane/Scholes combination to cope with high calibre opponents in their own ground, dispensing with the need to field the more defensive Butt and unleashing the full force of his attacking talents home and away. It was the game that confirmed Jesper Blomqvist of capable of dutifully carrying out a tactical role in a key game. It was the game which demonstrated that this team was capable of poise as well as pace; shorn of the acceleration of Giggs and Cole the onus was on United to find alternative solutions to unlocking opposing defences. Most importantly of all, it was the game that instilled this side with belief in their powers of recovery against the very best. Forty years on from tragedy, it was fitting that a Manchester United team chose Munich as the setting to reconnect with their capacity for resurrection against the odds. The team that had been shaped by Ferguson, enhanced by Eric, and invigorated by the class of ’92 was ready to chase greatness.