28th May 2011, Man United face Barcelona in the biggest football event of the year. Champions of Spain take on the Champions of England in a duel for generations to savor. After an excruciating league campaign, one which ended in glory and unparalleled joy, Sir Alex and Man United set their sights on reclaiming the biggest prize in European football- the UEFA Champions League. Standing in their way are the familiar foes -Pep Guardiola and his all conquering Catalan outfit. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, sparks are bound to fly. Can United burry the ghost of Rome once and for all or will mesmerizing Messi and FC Barcelona once again prove to be their nemesis?
The Wembley Arena, in the heart of London, provides the backdrop for this historic occasion. Wembley holds a special place in the heart of every Mancunian. Man United became the first ever English club to win the erstwhile European Cup on the historic Wembley turf more than 50 years back. Nevertheless the Cules have a special affinity towards the home of English football – Wembley was the scene of crime in the year 1992 when Johan Cryuff’s Barca side reached the summit of European football for the first time in their illustrious history.
The stage is set for an epic battle as Man United would be looking to emulate their great sides of the yester years. This is their time to set the record straight, this is their moment of truth.
Let’s look back at United’s European triumphs of the past as the Red Devils surge for their fourth European crown:
Spirit of ‘68- Old Wembley Arena, London
Sir Matt Busby, the architect of Man United’s glorious history, was the pied piper of the Red Army that finally laid its hands on the most coveted trophy 10 years on from the catastrophic Munich tragedy. The Busby Babes were supposed to bring the glory days back to Old Trafford and pave the way for an era of Man United dominance. However, disaster struck this Manchester Club in the form of an air plane crash and the Busby babes were lost somewhere in the annals of history. Eight ‘Babes’ died in the traumatic crash including the legendary Duncan Edwards, the club was drowned in a sea of sorrow and despair, there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel.
Thankfully Sir Matt survived and the Scot set on a crusade of rebuilding the club from its ashes. Sir Bobby, one of the survivors and the leading lights of world football joined forces and Man United were back on the footballing map. After sweeping past the mighty Real Madrid side in the Semi Finals in a memorable way, Man United were up against another European power house in Benfica. The Holy trinity of Charlton, Best and Law were broken up as the Lawman was forced out through a knee injury. It was billed as the clash between two of the greatest footballers of their generation – Portuguese wonder Eusebio and Man United’s very own George Best.
Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only two survivors from the Munich air crash that played in United’s team. Alex Stepney, Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Paddy Crerand, Bill Foulkes, Nobby Stiles, George Best, Brian Kidd, Bobby Charlton, David Sadler, John Aston are now a part of United folklore and etched in the memory of generations of Red Devil faithful.
United had to play in the untraditional blue kit as Benefica wore Red as the game started in a flurry of fouls with both teams trying to stamp their authority over the game. With the teams tied at half time, Mat Busby’s half time pep talk did the trick as a revitalized United side took the lead 8 minutes into the second half, via the iconic –Bobby Charlton. The England midfield maestro produced a memorable headed finish that left Jose Henrique clueless and the 100,000 in capacity went berserk.
However there was an inevitable twist in the tale, with only 10 minutes left to go, Benfica scored the equalizer – and very nearly won the match when their feared striker Eusebio broke away from Nobby Stiles. However luck seemed to favor the Red Devils as the great Eusebio also known as the Black Panther shot straight at the grateful Alex Stepney.
That was the fillip United needed as the game went into Extra Time. Busby’s team rose to the occasion and as the Portuguese tired, United gained in strength. ‘El Beetle’ George Best gave United the lead once again, rounding the keeper and putting the ball in the back of the net, a moment that has been played over and over again to the delight of every Red Devil. 19 Year old birthday boy Brian Kidd added the third and as destiny would have it inspirational captain Bobby Charlton rounded off the scoring with his second of the game as United were crowned the Champions of Europe for the first time in their history.
Ten years from the horrific Tragedy, Sir Matt had done the unthinkable. An emotional Busby was quoted:
“They’ve done us proud. They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight.”
Spirit of ‘99, Camp Nou, Barcelona
The most luminous feat in the glittering history of the Old Trafford club – the night in sunny Spain when the club captured its second European crown and the “Treble” was realized. No one has ever won the European cup like that, no one ever will. It was a night to savor for every football fan as Man United reclaimed its European crown after a 30 year long agonizing wait. It was destiny, nothing else explains those final 3 minutes that have created heroes for lifetime. Is there a Man United supporter on this planet who can watch those legendary 180 seconds without having goose bumps till this date? Nothing can trump that feeling, nothing will ever come close. The promise land achieved, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Holy Grail conquered.
United were having the season of their dreams- the League and F.A. Cup Double was already in the bag as Bayern Munich stood in their way of a momentous feat, unmatched in the history of British football. The “Treble” loomed large but United went into the match without two of their most important members- Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, the heart and lungs of the Red Devil outfit were suspended, advantage Bayern. Captain fantastic Keane had produced the most outstanding display against Juventus in the Semi-finals at Turin to drag his team from the jaws of defeat and brought them to the cusp of glory. Now United must win without their inspirational leader, David Beckham and Nicky Butt were given the arduous task of filling in.
Less than ten minutes into the game and Bayern made their dominance count, as Mario Basler’s sublime free kick put the Germans ahead. The commentator was all at sea, the free kick was superbly struck and there was no deflection as thought by the man behind the microphone. Ryan Giggs playing out of position on the right wing came close right at the end of the first half but not close enough.
Bayern were now looking more threatening after the restart with Basler causing untold grief to the United rear guard. Scholl almost doubled Bayern’s lead but his brilliant effort cannoned off the post into the hands of the Great Dane, United survived but time was running out.
Ferguson was forced into substitutions, a last throw of the dice, perhaps. Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer and Teddy Sheringham were sent on in a bid to salvage the game and may be force extra time.
“Bl**dy hell”, the decision was rewarded and how! David Beckham swung his right foot from the corner kick, even Schemichel ventured forward. Dwight York won the first header, as the ball seemed to remain in the Bayern half for an age, Giggs’ right footed shot was meek, but it went straight to Sheringham, who somehow found the target. 90:36 the clock read and United were level, name on the trophy, perhaps?
David Beckham took his position near the corner flag, as the stadium waited with bated breath once again. Becks curled it in and “Solsjkaer had won it”. Nobody in the stadium could quite believe it, the Germans were shell shocked, moments away from glory, now they had nowhere to hide. United and Sir Alex had achieved the unthinkable. Every United fan can still revisit every second of those tantalizing three minutes of injury time even with eyes wide shut. Where would Man United be in Europe without Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer? Such moments narrow the gap between the truth and make believe, did that just happen, thankfully it did.
Spirit of ‘08, Moscow, Luzhniki Stadium
50 years from the Munich air tragedy, United faced league rivals Chelsea in the first ever all English UCL final. The Red Devils had just won the league piping Avram Grant’s Chelsea to the post on the final day of the campaign. Now Moscow awaited the two rivals to re-ignite the hostilities albeit on the European front. Man United’s pole star, the one Cristiano Ronaldo gave United a deserved lead heading home brilliantly from a Wes Brown cross. United continued to dominate putting together some vintage and typical Man United attacks only to be thwarted by the stupendous Peter Cech. The Blues restored parity when a Michael Essien long range effort was blocked but fell kindly for the on rushing Frank Lampard.
Chelsea were in the ascendancy for most of the second half and, came close on numerous occasions. As the match entered extra time, both teams had guilt edged opportunities to reclaim the lead, however the deadlock remained and the drama continued to the fatal penalty kicks. Didier Drogba had been sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic, Chelsea would go on to rue his dismissal.
Cristiano Ronaldo who would go on to be crowned FIFA World Player of the Year for his exploits, stepped up , stopped , shot but straight at Cech. The Blues now needed to keep their nerve. After 4 rounds of penalty kicks finding their target, captain John terry stepped up to take the spot kick which would put Chelsea among the European elite, he slipped and hit the post. Van der Sar went on to deny Nicolas Anelka as the image of a rain soaked Dutchman pumping his fists appeared on the television screens. A third European crown and Ferguson and Man United’s name was now comfortably amongst the all time greats of the glorious game. Every United fan must have surely revisited that nerve racking penalty shoot out hundreds of time; every Red Devil knows the Van Der Sar saga of breaking the Chelsea penalty code. A magical night in the capital of Russia, one which will continue to echo in the memory of Old Trafford faithful for time immemorial, one of those moments that take your breath away and leave you clamoring for more.
The Old Trafford club stands on the brink of yet another European triumph, the joyous memories of United’s European past would act as a guiding and inspiring light for the men from Manchester. Can United add a fourth chapter to the book of European conquests; can Ferguson emulate Bob Paisley as the most successful manager in European cup history? The promise land awaits; Can Man United win? They always win.