The most successful team in the history of English football against the second-most successful team in the history of Spanish football. Each boasting eras akin to some of the greatest the game has ever seen, and can also stake a claim in the ‘biggest ever club’ conversation.
It’s only natural that these two behemoths have faced each other in continental competition and most of the time, their meetings haven’t disappointed the neutral.
Each of the ones selected in this list come with their own storylines; before, during and after the matches take place. As some of these will point to arguably the greatest club side ever assembled, let’s start with one that awakens fond memories for United fans.
Man United 2-1 Barcelona (European Cup Winners’ Cup Final) – 1991
The impregnable Sir Alex Ferguson versus the revolutionary Johan Cruyff.
It’s impossible to not be overawed by the integrity and sustained success Sir Alex was able to bring to Manchester United. But back in 1991, he was still relatively desperate to build on the stability he’d enjoyed in the very late ‘80s before attacking the ‘90s with the gusto he did. This was a great opportunity to do so.
Expectedly, Johan Cruyff wouldn’t make life easy for him, though even he would admit he hadn’t quite entered his zenith as a Barcelona manager by this point, either. Had the famous ‘Dream Team’ been assembled here, things may have looked differently.
For now, the Dutchman needed to rely on the brilliance of Michael Laudrup and the industry of Bakero, Eusebio (not that one), Begiristain and co. to offer up a force strong enough to distort United’s midriff. Unfortunately for them, that was the one area of Sir Alex’s side that was ready to take on whatever issues were posed in front of them.
Paul Ince. A magnificent player. An engine like his belongs on Le Mans race circuits. He followed Laudrup wherever he went, and whenever he passed, the captain Bryan Robson was regularly close by to shut him out. Bruce and Palliser enjoyed a quiet night.
Then, leave it up to an ex-Barcelona man to steal the show: Mark Hughes.
Though the first goal leaves a great deal of contention in the air as to whose shot crossed the line first, there can be no disputing what was a magnificent strike to make it 2-0.
Latching onto a stolen ball from midfield, he takes a significant stride toward the corner flag to evade the oncoming Carles Busquets in the Catalan goal. Most players would look at where he ended up, stop play and aim to continue the move with an indirect attempt to set up a teammate. But not Mark Hughes.
He winds up that right leg of his, strikes the ball as clean as a whistle and sends it firing into the only bit of the goal that remained in view. Koeman’s later effort was short-lived, and to Fergie’s men went the spoils on an intriguing night in Rotterdam
Mark Hughes vs Barcelona, 1991. #Greatest90sGoals pic.twitter.com/28RC8xEmYT
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) January 7, 2020
Barcelona 3-3 Man United (Group Stage) – 1998/99
Another great Dutchman patrolled the Barcelona dugout eight years later. Only this time, it was the domineering frame of Louis van Gaal. Ferguson (of course) stayed rooted in the United technical area, but with his chest puffed out far more than it had been in ‘91.
Now unshackled by the foreign player rule around which Cruyff navigated so delicately, Barcelona posed an alien cosmopolitan threat to Sir Alex’s side.
Of them all, perhaps Luis Figo was the most eye-catching for his incredible performances on the left-wing. Those which would eventually force him into the arms of Perez’ aspiring Galacticos manifesto with Real Madrid. But instead of focusing on that, let’s look at two other foreigners who made this game what it was: Brazilians Anderson and Rivaldo.
Though Anderson only spent two years at Camp Nou – the second largely fighting with his manager – he popped up to give his side the lead with barely a minute on the clock. He should have made it two soon after this, and United were ready to make him pay.
🏟 “The Nou Camp is a special stadium. One of the best I’ve played in.”
💪 “We always believed we could compete with the best in Europe.”
🔴 “Playing for #MUFC at the time, we played the Man United way.”@VanCole9 revisits Man United’s 3-3 draw against Barcelona ⚽ pic.twitter.com/cy845NXHOV
— talkSPORT (@talkSPORT) November 22, 2020
Notice anything familiar about the year of this match? Yes. This was the treble team.
Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole et al. All at the top of their game and desperate to finally claim the one title that eluded them. A stunning drive from Yorke brought the tie level once more, before perhaps the most iconic link-up play between the two United forwards put them ahead.
You’ll think you haven’t seen this before, but you definitely have. Keane passes the ball toward Yorke. He dummies with a step-over to leave it for Cole. Yorke’s on his bike to receive his friend’s impending through pass. He returns one in kind. Leaving Andy Cole free to slot it past the ‘keeper at his near post. A symphony of telecommunication.
Rivaldo answered back with a weird-looking free-kick which deceived Schmeichel, but there was nothing weird about his second of the evening – and Barca’s third.
Some tricky play from Sergi in the wide areas allowed him some room for an agricultural hook toward Rivaldo. The flight of the ball deceives him at first until his instinct takes over. Taking the ball down on his chest and manoeuvring for an awkward short bicycle strike to deceive the great Dane once again. It was the perfect tonic to Dwight Yorke’s header to end the contest 3-3 on the night, but not enough to progress to the next stage.
That honour went to the other two giants in Group D: Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Apparently, they met in the final but nobody really remembers it.
Barcelona 2-0 Man United – 2009 Final
The city of Rome has seen a lot of things, but rarely a team better than this one.
Making that fateful step from B side to first team, Pep Guardiola was desperate to reclaim the riches of old as Barca’s new manager, even if it meant ruffling a few feathers to do so.
Within minutes, Guardiola looked like a man on a mission to take his beloved side to pastures new, and took little time to put his imprint on them. Loyalties and nostalgia were brushed aside and with it, came a great deal of scepticism.
Zambrotta, Deco, and even the Ballon D’Or-winning Ronaldinho were shipped out while he worked with his ex-teammate Bigiristain to figure out the incomings. In comparison, his selection was slightly underwhelming with Sevilla’s Dani Alves being the largest name to come into the Camp Nou during his maiden transfer window.
Though true to form, Guardiola was ahead of the curve. Promoting a number of promising La Masia grads to the lineup to support some of the fledgling stars beginning to showcase their potential. Three of them lined his midfield in the Final: Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta.
The 2009 Champions League final was a vibe 🥶 💫 pic.twitter.com/trrQ6AWBuE
— FootMood (@FootballM0ment) February 16, 2023
The latter proved crucial in forcing through the opener on the night as a marauding run found a willing Samuel Eto’o to prod the move home past a hapless Edwin van Der Sar.
An hour later, it was Xavi’s turn. His shaped cross fell perfectly for the smallest man on the field, who lifted the effort above the Dutchman to take the wind firmly out of United’s sails – who were showing the odd promise on the counter-attack. The person tasked with heading the ball was some Argentinian lad called Lionel Messi. His careful nod made it 2-0.
In winning this, Pep Guardiola became the first manager to achieve the fabled ‘treble’ with Barcelona – winning La Liga and the Copa Del Rey in the same season. This also made him the youngest manager ever to win Europe’s coveted trophy. Not bad. Yet the best was still to come.
Barcelona 3-1 Man United – 2011 Final
Two years on, Guardiola’s team had officially matured. But Sir Alex Ferguson was in no mood to repeat their acquiescence as they returned to Rome in search of revenge.
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo a couple of years prior to Real Madrid increased the Scot’s need for industry above the flashy skills he was able to provide. In the window he left, Sir Alex was rather infamously left wanting for some star power to make up for the omission, instead Michael Owen, Gabriel Obertan and Luis Antonio Valencia came in.
According to his autobiography, Michael Carrick reveals that both he and new arrival Owen were offered the opportunity to don Ronaldo’s now-vacant number 7 shirt. He declined, and Michael Owen was an unused substitute for this fixture.
The Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets quartet remained in effect for their opponents, though the Argentinian opted for a more central role to make use of his unerring quality.
Paul Scholes talking about Lionel Messi & the 2011 Champions League final. pic.twitter.com/gHHITN0AZt
— Frank Khalid OBE (@FrankKhalidUK) February 23, 2023
Sir Alex kept to a similar midfield to what he had done in Rome before, but this time the team looked a more united bunch. Without Cristiano shirking much of his defensive duties, the team rallied to stop the pythagorean massacre that kept them silent last time out. Barca’s first goal of the evening made it look as though history wanted to repeat itself, but a smart effort from Wayne Rooney made things level at the break.
In hindsight, that might have been the issue. Assuming that things might change in his favour from the restart given the timing of the leveller, Sir Alex revealed in a recent interview with Gary Neville for SportBible that it’s a regret of his to have not readjusted Ji-Sung Park’s positioning to man-mark Lionel Messi.
He’d done so famously in the Champions League before against AC Milan’s Andrea Pirlo, and he still believes that he could have beaten them if that order was made.
Alas, it wasn’t and instead of running with the wind in their sails, Barcelona soon settled back into their rhythm, with a curled David Villa effort and a powerful Messi strike sealing a positive 3-1 win.
Man United 1-0 Barcelona – 2008 Semi-Final (Paul Scholes Goal)
We’ve seen the best of Barcelona, now here’s the best of Manchester United.
Debate has (and probably always will) ramble on as to which United side was truly the best. In truth, there are fine arguments for two eras in particular to stake their claim. The treble side or the 2008 side? As Thierry Henry says, maybe it’s better to not compare eras.
Coming into the semi-final of the competition and a drab 0-0 at Camp Nou setting up a barn-storming second leg at Old Trafford, United needed to be on top form to shake Rijkaard’s men – who were already beginning to show signs that what was to come of the Guardiola era could threaten them; even at this embryonic stage.
Typical of Sir Alex’s men from this period, it was imperative to come out the blocks quickly and to get at his opponents before they settled into the tie. A ricochet and a bobble on that hallowed turf gave one of his favourite players the perfect chance to do so.
It speaks a lot of a footballer when they are revered by their fellows, after all, who better to comment on their performance than somebody who knows what it takes to be that good.
The names: Zinedine Zidane and Andres Iniesta rightly come with a great deal of reverence by virtue of the legacies that accompany them. But even they tip their hat off to the brilliance that was Paul Scholes.
Manchester United have beaten Barcelona once in six meetings this century.
And it was thanks to a Paul Scholes stunner that sent them to the Champions League final in 2008 ☄️
(via @ChampionsLeague) pic.twitter.com/sZZEB7rlXB
— B/R Football (@brfootball) February 16, 2023
A master in the art of finding space when it looks unavailable and making the most of it when it was there, he possessed the sharpness and presence of mind to know where he needed to be on the football pitch. And a right foot capable of actioning whatever came to mind at any given moment to do what others would convince themselves was impossible.
Zambrotta’s loose pass in the 15th minute was presented perfectly to Scholes who saw some fresh grass and a misplaced Victor Valdes standing about 30 yards away from him.
Without thinking, he let fly. Striking the ball with a perfect amount of imperfection to angle it away from the Spaniard’s grasp and into the top-right corner. Even he looked surprised at what he’d just done. Which, though he didn’t know it at that very moment, meant sending his boyhood club to the Champions League Final for the first time since ‘99.
They ended up winning this one, too.
Read – Nine players who played for both Manchester United and Barcelona
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