There won’t be many neutrals or even partisan fans who would give Manchester United a hope of reaching the Champions League semi-finals – but the previous round is a good indicator of what drama football is capable of conjuring.
Their rich history with quarter-final opponents Barcelona can also serve as a motivating factor for the Red Devils as they look to finish the season with silverware – however remote the possibility – as well as reboot the resurgence overseen by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The 3-1 win in Paris to haul United into the last eight was undoubtedly the best result of Solskjaer’s reign so far, and went some way in securing the manager’s job on a full-time basis.
But rather than serve as a continuing catalyst for the change implemented under the Norwegian – seen as not very strong tactically when he first was put in interim charge at Old Trafford – it feels a little like United peaked in Paris.
Since that epic result against Paris Saint-Germain, United have slipped to three defeats in their following four games. Their sole win was a scrappy and barely deserved 2-1 home triumph against FA Cup finalists Watford.
A pair of defeats to Wolves, meanwhile, has seen them lose ground in the race for the Premier League’s top four – defeat to Arsenal also hindered their progress – and exit the FA Cup quarter-finals, a competition that was their best hope for ending the season with a trophy.
Paul Pogba’s loss of form is a concern, while Solskjaer is without Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera – two of his most important and resurgent players in recent months – for the visit of Barcelona. Herrera’s future is also up for discussion and a worrisome run of results has contributed to a feeling of unease around Old Trafford.
However, United have risen to the occasion consistently under Solskjaer, so a Champions League quarter-final against star-studded Barca could serve as the perfect stage to jolt them from their recent slumber – rather than a fixture to fill them with fear.
A look into the annals of history of this fixture is also something the boss might have alluded to frequently in the build-up to this monumental game.
From marvellous Lionel Messi and the magic in the boots of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford that we hopefully will get to see on Wednesday, to Ronald Koeman’s rocket in Rotterdam and a Paul Scholes pulveriser that put the Red Devils in the 2008 final. This is a special fixture that has produced some classic encounters and memorable European nights down the years.
To think, it’s been nearly 11 years since a tense and tight two-legged semi-final tie was settled by that Scholes scorcher at Old Trafford – on a night when an emerging Messi had threatened to tear United apart single-handedly.
Of course, the two sides have met since then – twice – but over one game, in the finals of the 2009 and 2011 competition. United were good back then but perfect Barcelona were at their peak. Pep Guardiola’s side purred in an era where they had no equal.
United must evoke memories of 2008 – that Scholes goal paved the way to the final, which they won so memorably in Moscow against Chelsea. They might also look back further and to 1991 and another final – the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, where a Mark Hughes brace cancelled out Koeman’s fierce strike from range that crept past Les Sealey and effectively kick-started the gluttonous period of success under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Seven years earlier, Bryan Robson – who pretty much dragged insipid United through the 1980s – scored two as United overturned a 2-0 first-leg defeat to progress to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals at the expense of Diego Maradona’s Barca.
A Graeme Hogg own goal and Juan Carlos Rojo’s strike looked to have been enough for the hosts in front of 94,000 at the Camp Nou, but Captain Marvel’s double and Frank Stapleton’s opener at Old Trafford sent United through – the last eight tie was their first competitive encounter with the Blaugrana.
All those involved say the cavernous atmosphere – United’s home support was revered throughout the decade – has never been repeated at Old Trafford since.
Three years later and the sides met again when paired together in the group stages of the Champions League – in then just its third season. Hughes again scored as did Lee Sharpe with a delightful back-heeled goal in a 2-2 home draw.
But United – finding their feet as a rising force under Ferguson, while the same squad they had beaten in 1991 were a year later crowned European champions – were ripped to shreds in the return game, thrashed 4-0 at the Camp Nou in a game that Hristo Stoichkov scored a brace, while Romario also found the net.
Twelve goals were shared between the teams when they were again drawn together in Group D of the 1998/99 Champions League. Both games were somehow drawn 3-3.
On matchday one, Ryan Giggs, Scholes and David Beckham scored for the hosts as Barca responded through Sonny Anderson and two penalties. What was to follow on November 25, 1998, in Catalonia, is a game considered one of the greatest in the history of the Champions League.
“It was a night of complete abandon,” Ferguson had said of the encounter. Needing to win to stay in the competition, Anderson gave the hosts a first-minute lead but Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke became almost one player as they combined to put United 3-1 ahead – their telepathy for Cole to make it 2-1 was Barcelona-esque.
Rivaldo’s stunning brace earned a point but United qualified second behind Bayern Munich who, of course, they would go on to beat in such dramatic circumstances on the same pitch six months later.
A decade after the treble, it was Scholes’ stunner that sent United into the final once more, but Barca – and Messi, the only survivor from that side still wearing the famous claret and blue shirt today – would have their revenge in Rome and London in 2009 and 2011.
Just like during those halcyon days under Guardiola, Barca remain one of football’s true forces. And while they might not be quite as good as that time, they still have Messi, who is as brilliant as he’s ever been.
So, the odds are stacked against United. But they have plenty of history to fall back on. And, under Solskajer, they are finally playing football akin to the club’s great traditions. And something approaching the swashbuckling brand of Ferguson’s heyday when they regularly graced the latter stages in Europe. So there is hope.
In an era where they are no longer among the elite, perhaps they can delve into their past and summon something extraordinary.
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