Two of Europe’s giants face off in the inauspicious circumstances of a Europa League play-off on Thursday night.
Barcelona failed to qualify from their Champions League group which featured Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, whilst United finished behind Real Sociedad in their Europa League group, dropping them into this play-off round.
Both teams are however in much better form than they were before the World Cup break, and despite taking place in Europe’s second tier competition, this should be a tie of the highest quality, and what better way to prepare for such a mouth-watering clash than by reminding ourselves of some of the great games between these two sides?
European Cup Winners Cup Third Round, Mar 7 & 21 1984: Barcelona 2-3 Manchester United (agg.)
The first meeting between the two sides took place in 1984, surprisingly late considering the long history of both sides in continental competition. Barcelona won the first leg at the Camp Nou, with a teamsheet headlined by the best player in the world at the time, the late Diego Maradona, beating a United side boasting the likes of Mark Hughes, Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson.
Graeme Hogg put the ball in his own net before a smart finish from Juan Carlos Rojo put the game beyond doubt. Few gave United a chance ahead of the return leg, but March 21, 1984, would become a famous night in Red’s folklore as they roared back to secure a 3-0 victory, dumping Diego Maradona’s side out of the competition.
Bryan Robson’s first half strike set the game up nicely heading into the second period, where goals from Robson again, and Frank Stapleton just two minutes later put United 3-0 up on aggregate.
A pitch invasion ensued at the final whistle, with Robson paraded on the shoulders of the Old Trafford faithful before finally escaping down the tunnel.
The games between these two sides started as they would continue, with high stakes a given and drama always following closely behind.
European Cup Winners Cup Final, May 15 1991: Barcelona 1-2 Manchester United
After a brief and mostly unsuccessful spell with Barcelona, Mark Hughes was back with United for the Cup Winners’ Cup Final, and the Reds were extremely grateful for it as he struck two second-half goals in seven minutes to give the English side a two-goal lead with 15 minutes to go.
Dutch defender Ronald Koeman scored a fortunate free-kick on 79 minutes to set up a tense finale, and Barcelona piled on the pressure, scoring an equaliser only for it to be disallowed, and seeing another chance cleared off the line.
United would just hold on and won the Cup Winners’ Cup for the first and only time in their history.
Champions League Final, May 27 2009: Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United
The clubs would not meet again in a final for 18 years, their next clash coming in the biggest game in club football, the Champions League final. The game took place in Rome and saw United attempting to retain their crown, having beaten Barcelona in last season’s semi-finals ahead of beating Chelsea on penalties.
Barcelona were out for revenge, and with both sides arriving as the champions of their domestic leagues, the scene was set for a monumental clash. Pep Guardiola was in his first season of management and chasing a historic treble, whilst opposite number Alex Ferguson was aiming for the third Champions League title of his illustrious career.
Though United started strongly, they fell behind early to Samuel Eto’o’s toe-poked effort and the momentum had decisively shifted in favour of Barcelona at that point. United were by no means outclassed but never really generated enough to deserve an equaliser as Barcelona remained threatening and looked comfortable.
The game was sealed with 20 minutes to go when Xavi’s exquisite cross evaded the United defenders and landed on the head of Lionel Messi, who sent his header into the far corner past Edwin van der Sar.
United continued to press, but were ultimately unable to overcome an opponent who may well lay claim to being the greatest football side to play the game.
Champions League Final, May 28 2011: Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United
Two years on from their previous final matchup, the two sides would meet again in the final of the Champions League. United were hopeful that lessons learned in that painful defeat in Rome would allow them to secure a fourth European Cup, but it was not to be.
This was perhaps the apex of the Guardiola and Lionel Messi era and though United were able to equalise after Pedro put the Catalans in front, they never really looked capable of winning the tie. Barcelona outshot United 22 to four in the first half and had over two-thirds of possession at 68%. The game may have been all square, but the gulf between the sides was apparent.
Messi struck early in the second half from 20 yards to restore the Barcelona lead, and the result never looked in doubt from that point onwards. David Villa would add a third on 69 minutes, securing the win and a fourth European crown for Barcelona, and a second for Guardiola as manager, a tally he has not been able to add to in the 12 years since this game.
“Nobody’s given us a hiding like that, but they deserve it”, said a magnanimous Ferguson after the game.