Real MadridREAL MADRIDManchester United

v

MANCHESTER UNITED

Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
May 14.1968

Real Madrid – 3 (Pirri, Gento, Amancio)
Manchester United – 3 (Zoco – own goal, Sadler, Foulkes)

Sir Matt Busby was much, much more than just a successful football manager. He was a talisman who bounced back from one of the saddest tragedies in the game to string together a team which would become the first English team to become European champions. Manchester UnitedOn their way, Manchester United knocked out record winners Real Madrid after an epic 3-3 draw in Madrid. The fighting spirit which has come to personify Manchester United teams in later years was all too evident in this match.

Backdrop

Manchester United qualified for 67/68 European Cup after winning the league title the previous season without losing a home match. Matt Busby’s reconstructed team was hitting their peak after winning the club’s second league title since the Munich disaster. The Red Devils knocked out Polish Champions Górnik Zabrze with a 2-1 score-line in quarter-final. George Best struck after the hour mark in Old Trafford as Manchester United eked out a narrow 1-0 win over Real Madrid. The tie was completely up for grabs when Busby’s team travelled to Spain.

A young Ajax, building their way to glory gave a tough time to Real Madrid in first round and it took extra-time to see them record a narrow 2-1 home win to progress. Los Blancos didn’t have a lot of problem in next two rounds as they comfortably defeated Sparta Prague and Hvidovre. However, Amancio was suspended during the Sparta match in quarter-final and missed the first leg in Old Trafford as Real’s attack often looked listless.

A week before this tie European champions Spain, containing six Real players, were sensationally defeated by Alf Ramsey’s England in Madrid in Euro 1968 qualifiers. Spain struggled to cope with Ramsey’s “wingless” tactics and some of the things England did in that match had laid the blueprint for Manchester United. Under Matt Busby Manchester United had reached European Cup semi-finals thrice prior to this, failing every time.

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The Match

Real Madrid (3-2-5): Betancort; Gonzales, Zunzunegul; Zoco, Sanchis, Pirri; Grosso, Perez, Amancio, Velasquez, Gento

Manchester United (4-3-3): Stepney; Brennan, Dunne; Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles; Best, Kidd, Charlton, Sadler, Aston

Needing to win this tie, Real Madrid started the match in an attacking mood. They played elaborate patterns with Amancio as the pivot with Sanchis, Pirri and Gento moving into channels inside Manchester United defence. Much of Real Madrid’s goal-scoring threat rested on the form of Amancio, who had scored a fantastic six minute hattrick against Sparta Prague in the quarter-final. Buoyed by a boisterous home crowd it was the Los Blancos who created most of the chances in first few minutes.

First chance of the game, one which would eventually prove to be one of the best in the match, fell for Amancio. Perez’s corner was headed towards the goal by the Spaniard only to see Stepney palm it onto the cross-bar. Ten minutes later Amancio once again turned the tormentor as his deflected cross almost opened up the goal for Gento but for a last minute clearance by Dunne. On 20th minute Sanchis tried his luck from far out only to force off a comfortable save from Stepney. Two minutes later Amancio robbed possession of Stiles in midfield before launching a cross from the right-flank into the Manchester United box. Pirri rose up to meet the cross but his header went well wide.

Two minutes after the half-hour mark Real Madrid got their richly deserved first goal, in a typically English fashion. Pirri rose high and handsome to meet Amancio’s free kick from right flank to head in the opener. Stepney could have done more as he was beaten at his near post.

Real Madrid continued to pile numbers forward in search of a season goal as Manchester United dropped deeper and out in more bodies in the box in some desperate defending. Their ploy did work well as despite all possession Real Madrid didn’t test Stepney all that much for a relatively calmer phase of the match after their opening goal. In this period there seemed to be an off the ball incident between Amancio and Stiles and the Spaniard needed few minutes treatment to resume action.

That calm phase proved to be calm before a particularly rocky storm as few minutes before the half time whistle saw as many as three goals being scored. Real Madrid made it 2-0 when Brennan failed to intercept Velasquez’s long pass as it fell for Gento who had sprinted past the Manchester United defence. Completely unmarked, Gento raced towards the opponent goal before taking a shot which hit Stepney’s shin before going in.

Manchester United hit back almost immediately, thanks to some chaotic defending from Rea Madrid. Dunne aimed a long ball towards Kidd, inside Real Madrid’s penalty box. His cross missed Kidd but was instead turned past a helpless Batancort by Zoco. It was a strange own goal as the Real Madrid defender was hardly under any pressure to make a hasty clearance. Seconds later Real Madrid reclaimed the two goal cushion. A ruckus in Manchester United box saw the ball fall at a comfortable height for Amancio who struck a fine volley into the top corer.

The half time score read a comfortable 3-1 lead for Real Madrid after a fine spell of domination.

Matt Busby’s half-time talk had a profound impact on his players as Manchester United came back strongly in second half. Real Madrid seemed complacent with their two goal cushion as they took their foot off the pedal. Once Real Madrid’s attacking threat got minimized Manchester United had more time and space to dictate the proceedings.

George Best had a fairly subdued first half when he hardly touched the ball. He became involved more and more as the second half progressed. On 54th minute Crerand threaded a pass for Best who ran between two Real defenders, evaded Gonzales’ sliding challenge but his shot was closed down timely by Batencort. Seconds later a wonderful shot from Crerand from 15 yards out flew just over the bar. Manchester United continued to knock at the door as Batencort pulled off a spectacular save to deny Kidd around the hour mark. On the other end, Amancio, for once let loose by his marker Stiles, tried his luck with couple of long ranged efforts which flew over.

The crucial second goal for Manchester United arrived on 73rd minute. Crerand’s free-kick was headed on towards the far post by Best. Real’s defence went to sleep for a split second as Sadler stole past his marker to bundle the ball in. The Red Devils completed a famous comeback five minutes later. Best cut back from the right wing but he was blocked by Gonzales. The loose ball rolled towards Foulkes. The experienced defender, playing his 46th European match, scored a perfect poacher’s goal to make it 3-3.

Real Madrid poured forwards for more goals but they had clearly ran out of steam by that point and Manchester United desperately held on to the scoreline. Matt Busby would later describe this night as the greatest in Manchester United’s history. Bobby Charlton was in tears when the final whistle went off as Manchester United became the first English team to reach European Cup final.

Tactics

Much of Real Madrid’s dominance in first half came because of the ease with which they penetrated Manchester United’s left flank. Grosso started out as one of the inside forwards but he spent most of the first half along the left touchline. Thanks to his wonderful close control and sudden burst of acceleration Grosso outpaced Dunne time and again. Sensing their opponent’s weakness on the left side Amancio and Pirri also dropped to the left side often. Some of the best chances in the first half, came from crosses from the left flank. On right flank Paco Gento, a member of the original Los Galacticos, had lost much of his pace with age and didn’t have an big impact like Grosso. This made Real Madrid’s system slightly lopsided and Manchester United took full advantage of this in second half. Real Madrid took their foot off the pedal in second half as George Best and Brian Kidd alternatively dropped deeper, drifted towards Gento’s wing and steadily deactivated one of their wings. Amancio’s movement was closely monitored by Stiles as the match progressed and his meant that his forays on Manchester United’s left wing, which, combined with Grosso, had devastating effect in first half, was restricted in second half.

Noby Stiles man-marking on Amancio is often considered one of the best examples of the trade in history of European football. Stiles committed over a dozen tackles on the man who was at that time considered to be Di Stefano’s heir and eventually neutralized him. Amancio still managed to assist and score once in first half, despite Stiles’s attention, highlighting his quality. Stiles also indulged in psychological war-fare. Minutes after the half hour mark Amancio dribbled past a sliding tackle from Stiles to create a chance for Real. Miffed, Stiles took Amancio out when the referee was not watching, minutes later. There were at least two instances when Stiles flew in from behind with two footed challenges, red cards by today’s standards and he also clipped the Spaniard once in the back with a high boot. Stiles was also remarkably successful with his tackles on Amancio and missed his mark just twice in 90 minutes. He also showed his excellent positional sense when he cleared Pirri’s low cross with Amancio closing down to meet it, seconds before Manchester United scored their second goal.

Man of the Match

Nobby Stiles

Criminally under appreciated by later generations, Norbert Stiles was one of the most crucial figures in Alf Ramsey’s World Cup winning England as well as Busby’s Manchester United. One of the greatest man markers of his era, Stiles’ “jobs” on Eusebio as well as Amancio are two of the finest examples of man marking in football. Albert Barham of Guardian described Stiles’ performance as “he watched him [Amancio] like a cat, pouncing as often as he could”. Stiles had to cope with incredible pressure in this match. He was showered with objects from the stands as he was marking a crowd favourite. Worse, he was booked in first half and had to be careful in second half to avoid a red card. It was not an easy task against a player who was as tricky as Amancio but Stiles didn’t put a single foot wrong in second half.

Aftermath

Two week later Manchester United made the short trip to Wembley to meet former champions Benfica, who had knocked out Juventus in semi-final, in the final. Stiles once again kept Eusebio quiet as Charlton gave the lead to Manchester United with a header in second half. Their lead lasted for 22 minutes with Jaime Graça drawing Benfica level. With the Portuguese players tiring in extra-time Manchester United scored three goals in a six minute blitz to lift the first European title in their history.

Few months later Manchester United would face off against Osvaldo Zubeldía’s Estuadiantes side in Intercontinental Cup. The team for which the term “anti-football” was coined stayed true to their moniker as they defeated the Red Devils after two ill tempered and violent matches. The European Cup win proved to be peak of Manchester United’s golden era under Busby, who would retire in 1969, only to return for half a season in 1970. Busby would be knighted for his triumph in European Cup but Manchester United would have to wait for two and half decades to win their next league title and three decades to become champions of Europe once again.

This final also signalled the end of “Ye-Ye” era for Real Madrid as they hit a somewhat barren patch till mid-70s, winning just one league title. They needed to wait till 1981 to reach another European Cup final but their 7th European Cup title would not come before 1998.

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Click here to read Jonathan Wilson’s tactical analysis of the big clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid tonight.

Click here to read the detailed preview of the big clash tonight.