When Manchester United kick off against PSV Eindhoven tonight it will be the fifth meeting between the clubs. The good news is that United have a decent record against their opponents, having won twice and drawn once. The bad news is that the good news is entirely irrelevant, since the most recent of those games happened almost fifteen years ago, which in footballing terms is almost history.
So if you want guidance as to tonight's game, then you might as well spend your time reading the horoscope, cutting up chickens, or having a look at this preview. If you want to spend some time wallowing in nostalgia/lamenting the passage of your youth, however, then read on.
Champions League, 2000-01
In 1992, just as Division One was becoming the Premiership, so was the European Cup metamorphosing itself into the Champions League. As is traditional, the early years of such a profound change are marked by a certain amount of what can only be called "dicking about" with the format, and by the time 2000-01 rolled around, the Champions League was bang in the middle of its experiments with a second group stage.
It was also only the second season where the third-placed team in the first group stage — keep up at the back there — would drop into the UEFA Cup, which hadn't yet become the Europa League. So a group of Manchester United plus Anderlecht, PSV Eindhoven and Dynamo Kyiv looked, at least at first glance, like a three-horse race for the second spot behind the 1999 winners.
It didn't quite work out that way. Though United began the tournament in style, putting five past Anderlecht at Old Trafford, they could only manage a draw away in Kyiv. PSV, meanwhile, had beaten Kyiv in their first game then lost to the Belgians, meaning that the group was nice and tight for United's trip to the Netherlands.
Alex Ferguson, bound by necessity and circumstance, picked a slightly peculiar team. Jaap Stam missed a reunion with his former club through injury, Fabien Barthez was also crocked, and Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham were rested ahead of a league game against Arsenal. In their absence, Raimond van der Gouw deputised in goal, and Jonathan Greening started in a midfield missing both Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. It didn't seem to be a problem initially, however, as within three minutes United were leading. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took a cute little tumble over PSV goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus, and Paul Scholes tucked away the penalty. A minute later, Dwight Yorke had a chance to kill the game, but poked wide from a metre out.
Then it all went wrong. Whether Ferguson underestimated the opposition is certainly up for debate, as PSV were a decent side and their lineup boasted a couple of dangerous players that would go on to make names for themselves at bigger clubs. Admittedly, not always for the right reasons: Mark van Bommel, then in his early 20s, would go on to lift the Champions League with Barcelona, and win titles in four countries; Mateja Kezman, by contrast, went to Chelsea and was complete rubbish.
Still, he was pretty decent before leaving the Netherlands, and he gave United's improvised defence trouble all evening. The equaliser came when future Aston Villa enigma Wilfried Bouma capitalised on a Phil Neville brainfade, before Kezman played Van Bommel in for the lead. The Serbian had a fistful of decent chances throughout the game but in the end only picked up one, the third, making Mickael Silvestre look mighty silly in the process.
While United had been collapsing in Eindhoven, Kyiv were thrashing Anderlecht 4-0, and at the halfway point of the group, United were in third place. It was therefore fairly important that they find an instant response in the next game, the reverse fixture. Barthez returned in goal, Giggs and Beckham came back to the wings, and United once again made the perfect start: after just eight minutes, Sheringham nodded home a Beckham corner.
United didn't capitalise, however, and the game stayed 1-0 until deep into the second half, when PSV equalised — Van Bommel, again; he was quite the dasher in his youth — and briefly threatened to derail the entire campaign. This time, though, United were able to regain the initiative, and late goals from Scholes and Yorke ensured a mirror image of a result. With Anderlecht beating Kyiv in Belgium, United went top of the group ...
... where they would have stayed, had they not themselves lost in Belgium the following month. Still, a squeaky 1-0 victory over Dynamo Kyiv in the last game was enough to take United through, and because of that second group stage, finishing in the runners-up spot wasn't too disastrous. United made short work of Sturm Graz and Panathinaikos in the next round, but a failure to outscore Valencia meant another runners-up spot, and this time it proved a step too far. United lost home and away to eventual finalists Bayern Munich.
The second group stage, incidentally, was scrapped in 2003-04. Because it was really, really stupid.
UEFA Cup, 1984-85
You need to go back another fifteen or so years to find the other meetings of these two sides. And while the UEFA Cup would have been an inconvenient consolation prize in 2001, then back in 1984-85 it was still a tournament with a bit of glamour and prestige to call its own. United, in Ron Atkinson's third year in charge, had qualified after a mixed 1983-84 campaign: though the title remained elusive and they'd eventually finished six points behind Liverpool in Division One, they'd toppled Barcelona in glorious fashion on the way to the semifinals of the Cup Winners' Cup.
For the following campaign, Ray Wilkins left to join AC Milan, but Atkinson dropped Norman Whiteside back into midfield and brought in Gordon Strachan and Jesper Olsen to play out wide. They started slowly in the league but cantered through the first round of the UEFA Cup, dispatching the magnificently named Győri ETO FC 5-2 on aggregate. (Seriously, bring back the old UEFA Cup. We need more names like this in our lives.)
That led to a second round tie with PSV, who were in something of a rut at the time. They had won the Eredivisie title undefeated in 1977-78, then completed a double with the UEFA Cup the same season, but hadn't managed any silverware since then. Quite the drought for one of the Dutch big three, and one that wouldn't be broken until the arrival of Ruud Gullit in 1985. Once he turned up, it was just a couple of seasons until they lifted the European Cup. In short, if you were going to play PSV at any point in the decade, this was just about the perfect time.
Not that you'd know if from the games themselves. There were no goal for three hours of football, as the two teams stalemated their way through the first leg in the Netherlands — Kevin Moran and Graeme Hogg were "impregnable" at the back, according to the Times, while Remi Moses and Bryan Robson "worked like Trojans" in front of them — then the second back in Manchester. It took extra time and a penalty to decide matters: in the 93rd minute Strachan went skittering into the left of the penalty area, was chopped down from behind, and picked himself up to larrup it home. It was, apparently, PSV's 25th foul of the evening, and the protagonist, Berry van Aerle, marked the moment with an adorable little strop at the referee.
At least the next round brought goals: United edged past Dundee United and into the quarterfinals thanks to the odd goal in nine. But they were to get no further, as an exchange of 1-0 victories with Hungarian side Videoton led to a penalty shootout and, ultimately, defeat. Back home, meanwhile, another season was slipping by without a title, and United would eventually finish a massive 24 points behind Everton. Still, while there would be no European football next season following the Heysel tragedy, United's domestic season would begin with ten straight wins. Surely, not even they could cock that start up?