By Piers Barber
With its long and torturous winter break finally over, the Champions League is finally back with us, complete with Zlatan, Clive Tyldesley and gloriously pompous theme music. And this time, there’s none of that slightly dull group stage bit to pretend to enjoy. Now is the moment when one of the greatest tournaments in world football really gets going.
After Manchester City and Arsenal’s comprehensive defeats this week, it now falls to Chelsea and United to represent the Premier League on the most significant European stage. Any other season, the Reds would be considerable overwhelming favourites for their tie with Greek Champions Olympiakos, but this season no challenge has proved too difficult to cock-up for Manchester United. The tie looks set to be a close one, which could perhaps be decided by a dodgy defensive lapse or rare moment of United star quality.
To whet your appetite for next week’s clash at the Karaiskakis Stadium, here are five of the most memorable first knockout round games that United have taken part in since the birth of the Champions League.
Manchester United 4-0 Porto (Quarter-final 1st leg, 1996/97)
United stumbled through to the first knockout round of the 1996/97 tournament despite having suffered three losses during the group stage (and a first round UEFA Cup exist the previous year). Yet the first leg of their quarter-final tie with Porto proved to be the moment when they finally demonstrated their potential to become a major force in European football.
Sir Alex Ferguson picked a remarkably attacking team, with Ronny Johnson the only central midfielder behind a front three of Eric Cantona, Andy Cole and summer signing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The tactic worked a treat, resulting in waves of flowing United attacks orchestrated by Eric Cantona, who enjoyed one of his most influential displays in Europe for United. David May, Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Cole scored the goals for United, who drew the second leg 0-0 to progress through to their first European Cup semi final for 28 years.
United line-up: Schmeichel, Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin, Beckham, Johnsen, Giggs, Solskjaer, Cantona, Cole
Manchester United 2-0 Inter Milan (Quarter-final 1st leg, 1998/99)
Dwight Yorke and David Beckham were the heroes as United comfortably defeated Inter in the first leg of their Treble season Champions League quarter-final. The Manchester side put on a thoroughly impressive display against a team containing the likes of Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Zamorano and Roberto Baggio, as well as a certain Diego Simeone. The Argentine lined up against David Beckham for the first time since the England star was infamously sent off for lashing out against him during the previous summer’s World Cup.
Beckham considerably outshone his rival, providing two pinpoint crosses which were expertly converted by Dwight Yorke, who made it seven goals in seven European games for the Red Devils. Boosted by this resounding victory against one of European football’s biggest names, United then turned their attention to a clash with Juventus in the next round. The semi-final proved to be another memorable occasion, plenty more of which were to come before the time the season was out.
United line-up: Schmeichel, G. Neville, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Yorke, Cole
Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid (Quarter-final 2nd leg, 2002/03, 1st leg 1-3)
Despite being a game which saw United crash out of the tournament, the Reds’ second leg clash with Real Madrid in 2003 was one of the great Champions League matches, a game so jam-packed with skill, sub-plots and drama that it is still spoken and written about to this day. After all, if the myth is to be believed, it is the game which convinced Roman Abramovich to purchase an English club – Chelsea, as it turned out – arguably the single most important moment in the development of the English game since the turn of the century.
A sublime Real Madrid performance in the tie’s first leg had created a near-impossible task for United in the return, and a devastatingly clinical Ronaldo hat-trick all but did for the Reds in their own back yard. A hearty comeback from United – which included two goals from the imminently Madrid-bound David Beckham – still made it a proud occasion for an enthralled Old Trafford crowd, who gave Ronaldo a standing ovation following his substitution midway through the second half.
United line-up: Barthez, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Solskjaer, Veron, Butt, Keane, Giggs, van Nistelrooy
Manchester United 4-0 AC Milan (Round of 16 2nd leg, 2009/10, 1st leg 3-2)
United had secured a slightly fortunate 3-2 win against Milan in the San Siro, with a scuffed Paul Scholes goal and two clinical Wayne Rooney headers proving enough to defeat a wasteful Milan side. The return leg at Old Trafford was a different story, though. Rooney scored another header early on, and doubled United’s advantage on the night just after half time. Park Ji-Sung and Darren Fletcher – with a memorable diving header – soon made it four for United, who ultimately ran out with an impressive 7-2 aggregate victory over a Milan side which including Andrea Pirlo, Ronaldinho and David Beckham. The former United man received a standing ovation from the home crowd after coming on as a 64th minute substitute. It was a comprehensive demonstration of genuine class from United, who benefited richly from one of Wayne Rooney’s characteristic purple patches in form.
United line-up: Van der Sar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Valencia, Fletcher, Scholes, Park, Rooney
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