Robson, Rotterdam, Romario, 3-3s, Cole and Yorke, Rivaldo’s overhead kick, Scholes’s sliced kick, Messi’s moments. You can’t help but be romantic about Barcelona and Manchester United.
Some of the United fans in Bilbao Airport hoped to avoid Barcelona. Not because of the team but the stadium. The away section in Camp Nou is closer to heaven than the pitch.
Another Red, awaiting his connection back to Manchester in Dusseldorf, hoped for Barca so United could “batter” them. He got the tie the Europa League needed.
Barcelona brought out the best in Old Trafford in 1984 and 2008, considered the stadium’s two greatest atmospheres by those present. They are certainly the most storied nights in the ground’s 112-year history.
The 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, the first by a British club since the Heysel disaster six years earlier, was enhanced by Barcelona’s maiden European Cup win at Wembley a year later. Sir Matt Busby was present at the Feyenoord Stadium and jubilantly clutched the trophy with Alex Ferguson the day after the final.
Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ taught United a harsh but invaluable lesson in Ferguson’s quest to climb Everest. It was poetic Ferguson hoisted the European Cup in the same gladiatorial dome in 1999 where Barcelona battered United five years earlier.
The Barca of Romario, Soichkov, Koeman and Guardiola left United’s players feeling as dizzy as those fans stood in Camp Nou’s vertiginous tiers in November 1994. On the 20th anniversary of the match, the Barcelona website hailed the victory as “one of the finest days in FC Barcelona history”
Upon their return to England, United would be welcomed at away grounds to the soundtrack of Freddie Mercury’s booming Barcelona. “That was a big lesson for me,” said Ferguson. “They showed us how important it is to possess the ball. I hadn’t understood it until then.
“I learned how important it is to have control of the ball in European matches.” Barcelona put United back on the passing carousel in the 2009 and 2011 finals.
United will always have the 2008 semi-final and the eruption when Scholes ‘mishit’ a half-volley into the top right-hand corner. Without the late Cruyff, Ferguson might never have been prefixed with ‘Sir’.
The current Barcelona sit at the summit of La Liga, albeit having played a game more than Real Madrid. The Spanish league is weakening, though. Sevilla have also dropped into the Europa League and Atletico are out of Europe altogether. After a summer of financial levers, Barcelona were Champions League leavers.
Barca’s only defeats have been to the elite trio of Real, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. They possess the unquenchable Robert Lewandowski and after Iniesta, Messi and Xavi, United face the Masia maestros of Fati, Pedri and Gavi.
Yet this is the second season running Barcelona have fallen through the Europa League trapdoor before Christmas and their squad is a mishmash. There are incongruous faces (Hector Bellerin, Memphis Depay), ageing loyalists (Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets) and exorbitant misfits (Ousmane Dembele, Frenkie de Jong).
De Jong avoided extradition to Manchester in the summer but will be able to attend an informal house showing in February ahead of possibly upping sticks in the summer. Frenkie goes to Hollinwood after all.
When Old Trafford last hosted a Europa League tie, it was tantamount to a pantomime crowd, with some booing Harry Maguire. For a second leg against Barcelona, the night has the potential to be the stadium’s seasonal highlight.
You can’t help but be romantic about it.