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Looking back at Manchester United vs. Barcelona

For more than 30 years, these football giants have been trading blows in Europe


Here we go again. Last week’s draw pitted Manchester United against Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. It’s another incredibly difficult matchup for the Reds, but also the newest chapter in one of Europe’s top rivalries.

Much ink will be spilled about this clash of football giants before the first leg at Old Trafford next month — and a big reason for that is the rich competitive history these two sides share. Everyone (unfortunately) remembers the Champions League finals in 2009 and 2011, but the United-Barça story goes much further back than that.

The Cup Winners’ Cup Era

Back when the Cup Winners’ Cup was still a thing, Manchester United twice downed Barcelona in the competition. In the 1984 quarterfinals, Barcelona jumped out to a 2-0 advantage after the first leg, leaving the Catalans so confident of advancement that the club brought practically no supporters to Old Trafford for the return leg.

Big mistake. That bizarre complacency handed Ron Atkinson’s Reds a decided home-field advantage and they overturned the deficit with a Bryan Robson brace and Frank Stapleton’s winner. Diego Maradona and company never knew what hit them.

In 1991 — the first year English clubs were allowed to enter European competition following the Heysel tragedy — United and Barça met again in the final. Everyone expected heavily-favored Barcelona to walk all over the Reds, but Sir Alex Ferguson guided his side to a huge 2-1 upset. Mark Hughes scored both goals for United.

Champions League + Treble Season

Barcelona didn’t have to wait long for their revenge, edging out Manchester United in Group A of the 1994/95 Champions League. Both clubs finished on 6 points, but Barça’s superior goal difference sent them through. And they had November’s 4-0 victory at Camp Nou to thank for that.

Because of the old foreigners’ rule — which limited clubs to only three foreign-born players in UEFA competition — Sir Alex Ferguson gambled that he could leave out Peter Schmeichel in favor of Gary Walsh in goal. That backfired to the tune of four Barça goals, burying United in a GD hole that they never escaped.

In the thrilling treble season of 1998/99, these sides were again drawn together in the Champions League group stage. Two entertaining 3-3 draws delighted the neutrals — and gave United just enough to move on ahead of Barcelona. Two memorable moments from the match at Old Trafford: Xavi made his Champions League debut for the visitors and David Beckham unleashed one of his trademark free-kick beauts in the second half. Oh, and some guy named Ole Gunnar Solskjaer started up top for the Reds.

2008 Champions League Semifinal

This was a nervy tie from beginning to end. The first leg at Camp Nou ended 0-0, usually a pretty decent result for the visitors. But United felt like they’d missed their chance, as Cristiano Ronaldo blasted a 2nd minute penalty wide of Victor Valdes’s post. What should have been a priceless away goal instead slipped through United’s fingers.

At Old Trafford, though, Paul Scholes put the Reds ahead early on. The erstwhile Oldham manager uncorked a laser into the top corner, sending United onto the final against Chelsea. In Moscow, as we all remember, United won the European Cup for the third time.

2009 Champions League Final

Dreams of a Champions League repeat died a swift death at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona buzzsaw. For Manchester United, the highlight of the match might just have been forcing Valdes into conceding a throw-in within the first ten seconds. Yep, it was that kind of night.

To be fair, United played well until Barça opened the scoring in the 10th minute. And Edwin van der Sar should have done better with Samuel Eto’o’s near-post shot for the first goal. But, really, this match was all Barcelona. The Catalans swarmed United, keeping the ball with ease and practically teasing the overmatched Reds. Lionel Messi capped off the 2-0 victory with a 70th minute goal.

2011 Champions League Final

After the 2009 defeat, Sir Alex Ferguson tantalizingly suggested that he knew what had gone wrong and would correct it if these sides ever met again. Although he never revealed what exactly he meant, many have guessed that he felt United played too defensively in ‘09 and didn’t press the Barcelona midfield enough.

And, at first, they did just that. Park Ji-sung flew around the pitch, harrying Barça midfielders and defenders into careless passes and dispossessions. Unfortunately, United couldn’t translate their strong start into a meaningful chance on goal and Barcelona again struck first. Wayne Rooney equalized shortly after, but it mostly felt like delaying the inevitable. Goals from Messi and David Villa finished off the 3-1 loss. Afterwards, Sir Alex conceded that “no one has given us a hiding like that.”