When United were drawn with Juventus in the Champions League this season I was delighted. Firstly because I hoped their presence alongside Valencia might spark the fire in Mourinho and provoke some Mourinho masterclasses and a decent run at winning the competition. But mainly because it brings back memories of the mid to late nineties when United went from European novices to Treble champions in 3 seasons all live on terrestrial TV.
The Champions League on ITV in the late nineties was spellbinding viewing for a young football fan. With only 1 live match on every fortnight and great commentators in Brian Moore and then Clive Tyldsley the tournament was must watch from game one. With only 16 and then 24 teams in the group stages had also yet to become the sprawling pointless mess they became in the 2000s.
In each of those three seasons United played Juventus. Juventus at that time were the greatest team in the world. Having won the 1996 Champions League their defence of the trophy in 1996/97 began by hosting United with a traditionally strong Italian defence a midfield three of future Chelsea manager, Conte, the future France manager, Deschamps and future United manager Zinedine Zidane. If the midfield three was ridiculously strong the front three was beyond a joke. In an era where English football’s version of tactical flexibility was playing 4-4-1-1 not 4-4-2, a forward line with two false nine style forwards of Boksic and Del Piero coupled with the brute power of Christian Vieri was mind blowing. United were never in the game and the one nil win sealed by Boksic was incredibly generous on us. The game at Old Trafford was another one nil defeat for United thanks to a Del Piero penalty. United survived both losses to qualify in second place in the group and book a quarter final against Porto who won all six group games. United then proceeded to annihilate the Portuguese champions in a 4-0 win that must be right up there in underrated performances by an English club in Europe. However, despite being the best side in both games United lost both legs of the semi final 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund, who then went on to beat Juventus in the final.
The following year United replaced the retired Eric Cantona with the cultured Teddy Sheringham and were once again drawn in a group with Juventus. Since the previous meeting, the Italians had added a Serie A title and the Intercontinental Cup to the trophy cabinet as well as reaching a second Champions League final in a row. They also added Fillippo Inzaghi, a prolific striker famously described as “a lad who must have been born offside.” There was an added complication in the format of the competition in that only the group winner qualified and two runners up of the six going through.
Both Juventus and Manchester United won their opening games before meeting at Old Trafford in October 1997. United were without Roy Keane who had injured his knee ligaments the weekend before. The situation worsened further just 20 seconds in as Del Piero sent Henning Berg for a pie and sat Peter Schmeichel on his backside and rolled into the net with a goal so beautiful it would now be shared a million times in GIFs
However, a stirring display from United saw Teddy Sheringham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs fire United into an unheard of 3-1 lead. Zinedine Zidane would score an injury time consolation goal but Juventus were now on the back foot in the group. United won their next three group games on the bounce including a violent thriller against Feyenoord that caused a classic Ferguson wobbler.
This left United on top of the group with 15 points, 6 clear of Juventus with a game left making the last match away in Turin a dead rubber….for United, a Juventus win could see them sneak through as a best runner up. A dreary game was meandering to a nil nil when Inzaghi scored with six minutes to go and allowed Juventus to qualify on goal difference as the second best runner up.
The knockout round brought more disappointment for United as they dealt with crippling injuries and being chased down relentlessly at home by the first great Wenger team. Monaco were the opponents and after a nil nil draw on the car park in France, Old Trafford expected a win in the second leg. The game was played on March 18th 1998, my 12th birthday and I was at the game. My first European night at Old Trafford, what could go wrong? The opposition only had two unknown French lads up front. David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry. Five minutes in Trezeguet scored an absolute blur of a goal and despite Solskjaer netting an equaliser United and Ferguson were out of Europe again.
Juventus meanwhile waltzed passed Dynamo Kiev and then Monaco to reach a third Champions League final in a row only to lose to Real Madrid.
The next season United finally avoided having to play Juventus in the group stages. No issues having to beat Juventus and top a group to qualify this year. No instead United were drawn with future United legend Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona featuring Figo, Rivaldo, Enrique and Anderson. Oh and Bayern Munich. At least one of the European giants were going out. And with only the group winner guaranteed qualification two of the three could go out. United played out two batshit crazy 3-3 draws with Barcelona that have to be seen to be believed.
They also conceded a 90th minute equaliser away at Bayern Munich which cost United two massive points. A double header win over Danish side Brondby saw two thumping wins, 6-2 and 5-0. By the last group game United were in a great position to qualify and indeed with ten minutes to go both United and Bayern knew they were both through, the Germans as group leaders, United as one of the best runners up with ten points. Juventus on the other hand started match day six on five points and third place in the group, but bizarrely could still qualify! The Italians beat group leaders Rosenberg 2-0 while second placed Galatasaray slumped to a 1-0 defeat away in Atletico Bilbao. The results meant Juventus, Rosenberg and Galatasaray all ended on 8 points from 6 games but with the Italian giants having a better goal difference their quest for a fourth final in a row was still on. Gary Neville couldn’t believe it either!
Three months later the knockouts started as Manchester United’s ludicrous run of match ups saw them face Ronaldo’s Inter Milan in the quarter finals. (Incidentally I maintain that every easy draw United seem to get is payback from this season. A Champions League run of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich combined with an FA Cup run of Middlesborough, Liverpool, Fulham, Chelsea, Chelsea, Arsenal, Arsenal, Newcastle is as hard as it gets.) The first leg of the Inter Milan game saw two classic David Beckham crosses set up Dwight Yorke twice for a two nil win. United held on with a nervy 1-1 draw away in the San Siro. Who would they face in the semi final? You guessed it.
Juventus visited Old Trafford on April 7th 1999 and with their midfield of Davids, Conte and World Cup winners Zidane and Deschamps on fire they absolutely ran the show with clever triangles and hard running, it was mesmerising stuff, and were hard done by in only leading by one Antonio Conte goal after 90 minutes. Not for the first time that season United grabbed a stoppage time goal to rescue a draw, but travelling to Juventus with a 1-1 draw was far from ideal. United warmed up for the second leg by playing Arsenal in the FA Cup semi final bit once but twice in an absolute epic. The second leg began with an absolute disaster as Inzaghi scored twice in the first ten minutes.
What unfolded from there is still the greatest performance I have seen supporting United. Roy Keane grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and pulled a goal back for United as Ferguson described it as “the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”
Dwight Yorke then equalised before half time and Juventus were done. United could have won by five in the second half but settled for Andy Cole scoring a late winner. United had reached the Champions League final and finally conquered the Juventus team.
If United play with even half as much verve and flamboyance over these two matches it will be a privilege to watch but nothing will ever compare to watching those epic encounters from 1996 to 1999 as United grew from boys to men in Europe.