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A brief history of Manchester United and the UEFA Super Cup

Weirdly, it seems that United do better in this game when they haven’t just won the Champions League.

Manchester United v Zenit St. Petersburg - UEFA Super Cup Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images

Is it a preseason friendly? Is it probably playing merry hell with José Mourinho’s preparations? Yes! It’s the Super Cup!

United’s game against Real Madrid this evening is the club’s fourth venture into UEFA’s ‘like the Charity Shield, but European’ showpiece, and it hasn’t always been the happiest fixture for the Reds. Here’s a quick look back at the other three.

1991 vs. Red Star Belgrade

Having seen off a pretty decent Barcelona team in the 1991 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final, United were due to play two legs, home and away, against Red Star Belgrade, winners of the 1990-91 European Cup. However, the political situation in Yugoslavia led UEFA to cancel the leg in Belgrade, reducing the game to a one-off at Old Trafford, held in mid-November.

Having won the FA Cup in 1990, then the CWC in 1991, Alex Ferguson had ridden out his rocky early years at United and was starting to see tangible reward for his rebuilding efforts. He was also starting to get a little more creative in the transfer market: Peter Schmeichel had taken Les Sealey’s place in goal, and Andrei Kanchelskis was establishing himself on the right wing ahead of Mike Phelan.

Both started against Red Star, along with Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister in defence, Paul Ince in midfield, and Mark Hughes and Brian McClair up front. An extremely young Ryan Giggs only made the bench. They faced off against a Red Star team that included Dejan Savićević and Siniša Mihajlović, who would both go on to great things in Italy, and Darko Pančev, winner of the 1991 European Golden Boot.

Despite the resonant names, the game wasn’t a classic. United were awarded a penalty in the second minute for a fairly obvious handball, but Bruce couldn’t find the corner and Zvonko Milojević saved well. An hour and five minutes later, Neil Webb picked up the ball outside the box, fired a shot into the base of the right hand post, and McClair was on hand to tap into an empty net.

1999 vs. Lazio

United had to wait eight years for more European success, during which time the Super Cup underwent some renovations. As of 1998 it was compressed into a single game held in August at a neutral venue, and then in 1999 the European Cup-Winners’ Cup was folded into the expanded Europa League. This, then, was the last game to feature the Cup Winners’ Cup winners, which is something of a shame, since “Cup Winners’ Cup winners” is kind of fun to say.

Anyway, United — who, you may recall, had Sheringham’d and Solskjaer’d their way past Bayern Munich the previous May — were to face Lazio, who’d won the Coppa d’Italia in 1998 and then overcome Mallorca to win the CWC. Oddly enough, this meant a reunion with Siniša Mihajlović, who was anchoring the Lazio defence along with Alessandro Nesta. In midfield, Juan Sebastián Verón took the opportunity to show off in front of Alex Ferguson, which could only end well.

However, it was a different failed transfer that made the difference. In 1997, Ferguson had told the media that he thought Marcelo Salas “could play in England without any problem,” and the Independent reported that he’d asked the player’s agent to proceed with the deal. Presumably the agent completely ignored him, for Salas instead went to Italy in 1998.

Though he didn’t start against United, instead coming off the bench after 23-odd minutes, then scoring the only goal of the game after 34. And though he did well enough, chesting down a header from Roberto Mancini, then pausing a beat to allow the ball to drop before firing firmly at the goal, he had a little help from the United side of things. Raimond van der Gouw, preferred to the shambolic Mark Bosnich, could only deflect the ball into the net.

2008 vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg

United’s most recent venture into this friendly competition came in 2008, after the win over Chelsea in the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. And the fact that it came against a Russian side probably counts as ironic, at least under football’s extremely loose definition of irony.

Zenit Saint Petersburg, managed by Dick Advocaat, were a pretty fun side at the time, and as a result the game contained more than one goal. Sadly, two of them went to the other lot. After 44 minutes, Pavel Progrebnyak, future Fulham underwhelmist, nutted a cute flick-on home from a distance of about three inches. Paul Scholes stuck an arm out on the line, but couldn’t get any decent contact. This will be important in four paragraphs’ time.

Then, 15 minutes into the second half, Danny picked up the ball about 40 yards from goal, turned, ambled into the United box, and thumped home. It appears that United’s defenders were fooled by a piece of incredibly imaginative improvisation: first, Danny ran towards the right wing, and then he ran into the penalty area. Neither Gary Neville nor Rio Ferdinand had a clue what was happening.

In between those goals, Paul Scholes picked up a booking. This will be important in two paragraphs’ time.

United rallied and began to create chances. They pulled one back after 72 minutes, Nemanja Vidić sweeping home from a few yards out after good work from Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Then, in the 90th minute, Scholes rose in the penalty area and the ball looped over Vyacheslav Malafeev for a late equaliser. It was a jump that a volleyball player would have been proud of ...

... though, sadly, their pleasure wouldn’t have ended there. On the football pitch, use of the hands is generally frowned upon, and given that Scholes’ arm was fully extended above his head, there was no way the referee was going to miss it. John O’Shea bravely attempted to begin the celebrations, perhaps hoping that the referee would be too embarrassed to dismiss a man who was being warmly embraced, but no such luck. Off he went.