IT TOOK SIR Alex Ferguson a long time to figure out the Champions League. It didn’t help that for the first few years of the tournament’s existence, he was battling quite a number of irritating blockades.
There was the three foreigner rule and also Manchester United’s general inconsistency in Europe during the mid-90s. Despite the club’s domestic dominance, it wasn’t until Uefa increased the number of teams that United reached the competition’s group stages in 1994.
And, it proved an eye-opener. Away from home, they were torn to shreds – first by Barcelona at the Camp Nou but also by Goteborg in Sweden. They failed to reach the knockout stages and Ferguson was forced to rethink things.
But, owing to Blackburn’s Premier League victory in 1995, United didn’t return to the Champions League until the autumn of the following year. And they faced an intimidating opening fixture.
Ferguson didn’t fear much but the previous season he’d seen his longtime pal Walter Smith suffer back-to-back humiliations as Rangers conceded four times home and away to Marcello Lippi’s Juventus in the group stages.
The side – with Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Alessandro del Piero up top – went on to win the trophy but it was a somewhat different looking team that took on United in Turin in mid-September.
During the summer, Vialli and Ravanelli had both moved to England – joining Chelsea and Middlesbrough respectively – and in their places came Croatian striker Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri. But Lippi’s most eye-catching capture was Bordeaux midfielder Zinedine Zidane.
Ferguson had monitored both Boksic and Zidane too but went a different route with his off-season purchases.
In came Czech winger Karel Poborsky, Jordi Cruyff from Barcelona, Norwegian defender Ronny Johnsen and his compatriot Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
And while Lippi’s acquisitions put on a show at the Stadio delle Alpi, United’s faded into the background.
“Men against teenagers,” is how The Independent put it in their match report and it was a pretty accurate description.
As 1-0 defeats go, this was a thrashing.”
United were battered and struggled to catch their breath for long periods.
Ferguson had tried to nullify Juve’s threat by packing the midfield and playing Eric Cantona as a lone striker with support from Cruyff and Poborsky.
But, not used to sitting back and absorbing pressure, United were easily picked off.
An unmarked Antonio Conte should’ve netted early on after Boksic whipped in a magnificent cross to the far post but his volley smacked off the ground and bounced over Peter Schmeichel’s crossbar.
Juve thought they’d hit the front when Schmeichel made a mess of a long-range shot and Conte won the race to the rebound. He neatly tapped home and raced away wildly before the whistle went for a ridiculous offside.
But nothing illustrated the gulf in tactical nous more than the hosts’ goal. From a United throw-in deep in the Juve half, they coughed up possession on the edge of the opposition area.
With one simple pass, the entire pitch opened up and Zidane raced clear, Cantona desperately and hopelessly in his dust. United still had three defenders back but just past the halfway line, Zidane used the outside of his boot to slide through a meticulous pass for Boksic to run onto. It was so inch-perfect that there was a fleeting moment when Nicky Butt stuck out a leg, so convinced he could get a touch. But it was an illusion. It curled perfectly into Boksic’s path and as Schmeichel raced towards the edge of his area, the striker stabbed it to the net.
At half-time, the recriminations started in the United dressing room.
Ryan Giggs, used alongside Butt and David Beckham in central midfield, felt Cantona was so unfamiliar with playing as a number nine that he wasn’t showing for the ball enough.
He argued with Ferguson about changing the system and, in frustration, threw a drink that ended up at Ferguson’s feet.
Instantly, Brian McClair was ordered to come on and Giggs suffered the ignominy of having been hauled off at half-time in a high-profile European game. Later, he was fined a week’s wages too.
Cruyff and Poborsky were also replaced late on as Ferguson went for broke but Juventus were incredibly comfortable and hardly broke a sweat all evening. United didn’t even muster a shot on target for the entire game.
The result was incredibly flattering considering the volume of chances Juve conjured but it was another harsh lesson for United and a forgettable European experience.
“We could have lost by more,” Ferguson said afterwards.
If you lose possession at this level they will cut your throats. We were naive but we can still qualify.”
And he was right.
The group was a decent one for United and despite losing three games from six, they still managed to make it through.
From there, they were faced with a tricky tie against Porto in the quarter-finals but took full advantage of the first-leg being at Old Trafford. They were 2-0 up after 34 minutes and managed to find the net twice more to effectively secure a place in the final four.
Again, they caught a lucky break and while Ajax and Juventus met in the other semi-final – a repeat of the previous year’s decider – United drew Borussia Dortmund.
Still, the team’s shortcomings were on display in both games and with a place in a Champions League final very achievable, United let it slip and failed to find the net in 180 minutes.
Dortmund were solid but unspectacular and though they would go on to beat Juventus in the final, it seemed like an opportunity missed by United.
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