Perhaps as a reaction to Tuesday night’s jagged 2-0 victory over Benfica, I’ve been thinking about the many great Champions League nights that Old Trafford has been graced with since the competition replaced the old European Cup in the 90s. Sure, the club’s most seminal CL outings took place in Barcelona and Moscow, but our fair home has experienced some classic encounters over the years that will live long in the memory, even when United didn’t win.
With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane and remind ourselves of some great European nights under Old Trafford’s floodlights (FYI, the Benfica game did not make the cut):
5. United 4-0 Porto 05/03/1997
The 96/97 season was something of a turning point for United in Europe under Sir Alex Ferguson. The club’s third Champions League campaign saw them come up against a foe that we would become overly familiar with in the shape of Juventus in the group stages, finishing second behind the Italian side to qualify for the knockout stages. At that stage, there was a sense that United were finding their feet in Europe, and a draw against a fancied Porto side in the quarter finals without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, the tie looked a tricky proposition.
Well. It LOOKED tricky…
David May began the rout after Hilario could only parry Gary Pallister’s original header towards the falling defender, before Eric Cantona, in his last season at the club added a second after a comical bit of defending by the visitors allowed him to sweep home. Ryan Giggs finished off a lovely move for the third with a low shot before Andrew Cole clipped in a fourth after Cantona had played his strike-partner in.
United were irresistible that night. Giggs, David Beckham, Cantona, Ole Solskjaear and Cole delighted in the occasion and helped to deliver one of the club’s first real statements of intent in the competition. It took a few years before it all paid off, of course; that mixture of youth and experience eventually bore fruit two years later, but it could be argued that this quarter final tie helped United to believe that they could challenge at this level.
4. United 3-3 Barcelona 16/09/1998
No United fan that lived through it could forget the 98/99 campaign, capped off as it was with a remarkable Champions League final victory at Camp Nou with a League and Cup double already in the bag. The start of that fateful Champions League campaign did more than hint at the drama to come, with United paired with both Barcelona and Bayern Munich in that season’s group stages. Four draws and two thrashings of Brondby later, United managed to top the group, and it started with an exhilarating draw at home to Catalans.
Perhaps the only frustrating thing about this meeting was that United took the lead twice, only to be pegged back by the visitors. Still, what a game it was. Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were electric, the former feeding Ole Gunnar Solskjaer early on with the Norwegian hitting the post before the two wingers combined for the first goal, Beckham crossing for the Welshman to head back across goal. Dwight Yorke’s wonderful overheard kick was quickly blasted in by Paul Scholes for a second, with United racing into a 2-0 lead with some wonderful football.
Barca restored parity with an Anderson strike just after the break and Giovanni penalty on the hour mark. That, however, lasted barely four minutes as Beckham curled in one of his greatest free-kicks from distance beyond a despairing Ruud Hesp for United’s third. A second penalty, this time dispatched by Luis Enrique made sure the scores stayed even at full time, but what a contest. United had gone toe-to-toe with a more-than capable Barcelona side, and a point almost felt like scant reward. As the return at Camp Nou would prove several weeks later, the feeling seemed to be that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were truly ready to take on Europe.
3. United 3-2 AC Milan 24/04/2007
Whilst the return leg may have ended in a crushing 3-0 defeat at the San Siro, the first leg of this semi-final tie in the 06/07 remains a wonderful contest to look back on. Cristiano Ronaldo’s header had opened the scoring early on, only for Kaka to stamp his talent on the contest and leave United reeling. The Brazilian was in fine form, slicing a shot across Van Der Sar’s goal for the equaliser and taking advantage of a clash between Patrice Evra and Gabriel Heinze to stroke home his second. United had peppered Dida’s goal with shots, but still found themselves conceding two away goals.
Wayne Rooney had other ideas, tapping in an equaliser on the hour mark as United started to take charge. Dida was impregnable for the following half hour, and the home side couldn’t find a way through until Ryan Giggs’ surging run was slipped through to Rooney, and the Evertonian caught the Milan keeper off guard to fire in a first-time shot. Cue bedlam. Rooney dashed off to the corner of the pitch, awaiting a barrage of celebrations from his teammates after sealing a brilliant victory. United had dragged their way back into a tie that could easily have gotten away from them, and they did so in fine fashion.
2. United 1-0 Barcelona 29/04/2008
No arguments here on which Champions League night at Old Trafford shredded the most nerves, surely? United were inches away from the perfect start at Camp Nou in the first leg of this semi-final a week prior to this meeting, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s missed penalty meaning that only a win would take us through to a first final in this competition since 1999. United made it through, but predictably, they had to do it the hard way.
Admittedly, Barcelona didn’t really give Ferguson’s men any other choice. The Catalans dominated large spells of the game, with Lionel Messi a constant threat and chances for Thierry Henry and Argentine gratefully saved by Edwin Van Der Sar. Plenty of credit needs to go to Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown for their defensive displays, with the latter turning in arguably his best ever performance for United as a late replacement for the concussed Nemanja Vidic, but the night will forever be defined by that miraculous Paul Scholes strike. Seizing on an errant touch by Gianluca Zambrotta, Scholes produced one of the greatest shots of his career, a rising drive that curled away from Victor Valdes and left the Spaniard helplessly watching the ball fly past him. There was plenty of the game left to endure after the goal, and the atmosphere, tension and raucous noise inside Old Trafford made it all the more memorable.
1. United 7-1 AS Roma 10/04/2007
There was only ever going to be one winner here. As a one-off example of what Manchester United can achieve, of the magic that this club can provide, the famous thrashing of Roma in the 06/07 season is almost unsurpassed.
It’s one of those matches that I don’t even have to refer back to the highlights to remind myself of what happened, so ingrained are the goals and flow of the game in my mind. The lead-up to the game was just as memorable, even if it wasn’t for the right reasons. The first leg result was a 2-1 defeat, with Wayne Rooney grabbing a useful away goal but Paul Scholes sent off for two reckless challenges and ruling himself out of the second leg in the process. More importantly, overzealous and violent policing in the Stadio Olimpico had seen United fans battered inside the stadium, with Roma Ultras attacking them outside of it. It all combined to create a highly-charged atmosphere at Old Trafford the following week, with a massive Police presence surrounding the visiting fans as they entered the East Stand before kick-off. They, in turn, were surrounded by a particularly angry United following, which was unsurprisingly given the events of the first leg, and tensions were running high.
That opening salvo of three goals in seven first half minutes remains an absolute joy to watch. Michael Carrick kicked things off when caught Doni out with a first-time long-range effort in the 12th minute, before Alan Smith, starting ahead of the injured Louis Saha looped a fine shot over the despairing keeper from the edge of the area. The third was simply breathtaking, a gorgeous counter-attacking move that saw Ryan Giggs pick out an onrushing Rooney who made mugs of the Roma defenders and glanced into the far post. The feeling was a mixture of bewilderment, joy and utter elation. United were ravenous, and Roma simply couldn’t cope.
It bears repeating; Roma were no stiffs. At the time, they were a credible force that deserved respect, but United’s pace, desire and passing had rendered them redundant. A wonderful Daniele De Rossi strike late on was scant consolation after a Cristiano Ronaldo brace, another wonderful long-range Carrick effort and Patrice Evra’s low strike had been added to the scoreline. It was a remarkable match, purely for the fact that so rarely do so many elements align to allow for such a performance and scoreline on an occasion such as this. That it happened at a bouncing Old Trafford made it even better.