Call me completely and utterly deluded but when United were drawn against the all conquering European Giants Barcelona in the Champions League on Friday, I was actually chuffed. It’s not that I think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team are suddenly the best on the planet – if they were they’d have beaten the likes of Arsenal and Burnley. Nor do I buy into the idea that Ernesto Valverde’s side are somehow on the wane, a shadow of their former selves and ready to be hammered.
No, the reason for my elation at such an admittedly difficult draw is that United v Barcelona is one of the reasons we love being football fans. It’s the type of fixture our great club should be involved in and while trips to Porto and North London may have been easier to navigate, a foray into Catalonia will be all the more epic – and with Ole at the wheel, who knows?
The former babyfaced assassin turned managerial genius has got United fans daring to dream again and forgive me if I’m not ready to wake up just yet. While the vast majority of football fans, especially our rivals and dare I say even Barcelona’s faithful, would have chuckled at the sight of United being drawn against the Catalans, there’s a few of us who remember we’ve been here before – and often, although not always, prevailed. 2009 and 2011 may be stuck in the collective memory as a time the Reds simply couldn’t stop the Barcelona juggernaut, but there’s been far more games between the two sides where United have more than held there own. Who’s to say we won’t again? Here’s a top five of United v Barcelona clashes over the years.
5. United 2 Barcelona 2. 1994. Champions League group stages.
There’s little doubt that UEFA’S ‘three foreigner rule’ which allowed clubs to only field three foreign born players, plus two who’d been in the country for more that 5 years handicapped United. Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly found the likes of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Eric Cantona, Andrei Kanchelskis, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Brian McClair and Mark Hughes, fighting over five places in the team. Thankfully Eric did the gaffer a favour by getting himself banned for the game against Barcelona in the 1994-95 group stages, but it was still an epic task for Ferguson to manage. Barcelona were less reliant on so many foreigners, so less affected, while the foreigners in their ranks were amongst the greatest to ever play the game.
When Romario and Jose Mari Bakero made it 2-1 to the Catalans at Old Trafford following Mark Hughes’s opening goal, it looked like United could be in serious trouble. Lee Sharpe came to the rescue though, with one of his great moments in a United shirt, a cheeky back-heeled equaliser sending Old Trafford delirious. The less said about the return leg the better…
4. Barcelona 3 United 3. 1998. Champions League group stages.
When United left the Nou Camp following the second 3-3 draw against Louis van Gaal’s side during our Group D campaign it was with a feeling of disappointment. Despite going behind after less than a minute, the Reds had rallied to take a 3-2 lead after excellent work from Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. The strike partnership was flourishing and Cole’s finish was one of the best worked strikes the duo ever produced and one of United’s all time great European goals. Although Rivaldo got all the headlines with two superb goals, including an overhead kick giving Peter Schmeichel no chance, it was a sign that unlike 1994, the Reds were more than a match for their Catalan counterparts. Barcelona, not United were the ones who went out of the competition that evening and the Nou Camp would play host to the Reds’ greatest ever night six months later.
3. United 1 Barcelona 0. 2008. Champions League Semi-Final second leg.
Few games have raised the roof at Old Trafford in the way United’s second leg semi-final clash with Barcelona did in 2008. It was a magical evening that saw United’s makeshift defence, cope admirably with one of Europe’s great teams. Some will argue Barcelona were caught between their two great sides of the past 25 years, the end of the Frank Rijkaard era, before Pep Guardiola had taken hold. Let’s not forget though this was a Barca side containing, Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Samuel Eto’o. Paul Scholes wonder-strike saw was the only goal of the entire two legs and one more than worthy of sending United to the final.
2. United 2 Barcelona 1. 1991. European Cup Winners’ Cup Final.
When English teams were finally allowed back into Europe following UEFA’s decision to ban the entire nations’ teams after the Heysel disaster, it was United who led the way. The Reds faced yet another great Barcelona side in Rotterdam for a game where the smart money was on Johan Cruyff’s team. Ferguson was beginning to hit his stride as United boss and show that maybe the Reds had finally found the man to follow in Sir Matt Busby’s footsteps. United fans out sung their Catalan opponents off the pitch while on the pitch Ferguson’s side outfought Cruyff’s. Two Mark Hughes goals, one robbing Steve Bruce of a goal bound header, the other a superb tightly-angled strike were enough to see United win despite Ronaldo Koeman’s late free-kick. The Reds were back, in more ways than one and Europe was starting to take notice.
1. United 3 Barcelona 0. 1984. European Cup Winners’ Cup Quarter Final second leg.
In many ways it’s Bryan Robson’s fault most of us believe United can always defeat any opponent. After losing the first leg 2-0 there seemed little or no chance of Ron Atkinson’s side turning things around against a team containing a certain Diego Armando Maradona. Robson gave arguably the greatest performance by a United player ever, that night as the Reds destroyed Barcelona, in a an atmosphere that even I as a four year-old living a mile away in Stretford at the time remember hearing to this day. Robson got a brace, Frank Stapleton the other as the Reds made us all dare to dream – as per fucking usual.