My Favourite Match – Juventus 2 v 3 Manchester United 21/04/99. Turin.
Comebacks have become a trademark of Manchester United in the Sir Alex Ferguson era and never were they more prevalent than this historic season. But this was perhaps the most improbable of them all.
Their domination on the domestic stage was already well established but Europe remained a very different proposition. There was a mystical element around Europe. The Champions League remained a holy grail that just seemed out of Ferguson and United’s reach.
The night itself had all the trimmings of a majestic European night from the misty backdrop to the glorious roars of the Bianconeri’s fans. The rest of Europe seemed considerably more intimidating for English sides in this era.
The mission statement was clear for United. After conceding at Old Trafford the tie was level at 1-1 but Juve’s vital away goal meant United had to at least score. United were well versed in the art of uphill battles, even so, falling behind to two Filippo Inzaghi goals inside eleven minutes appeared catastrophic.
Juventus’ team had an unmistakable aura around them. At the time, there wasn’t that sort of invincibility around United or other English sides in Europe that was to be ushered in during the next decade. When it came to proficient, effective European displays, English sides seemed to be tactically naïve. In stark contrast, Juventus were masters on the European stage. Under Marcelo Lippi they had made the previous three Champions League finals. Furthermore they’d bossed United for large periods at Old Trafford and there was little to suggest that proceedings would be different on Italian soil.
At 2-0 down the outcome should have been obvious. But as we’d seen time and time again and would continue to see, United’s resolve was unbreakable. Nobody typified this more than Roy Keane and this night proved to be his finest in a red shirt.
Keane was booked in the first half and so would miss the final but he remained undeterred. Ferguson would later lavish praise on his captain:
“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player”.
It was Keane whose header got United back in the game and when Dwight Yorke got an equaliser shortly afterwards, United were suddenly in pole position to advance on away goals.
This game adopted a precarious nature with it tentatively poised at 2-2 until late on but both sides had excellent chances. United hit the post twice and the offside flag denied Inzaghi a hat-trick. There was never a question of United sitting back and trying to hold out. It was both a reflection of their attacking prowess and their culpability to concede. They’d scored twenty goals in the group stages that year but had also conceded eleven. At 2-2, United were going through on away goals, yet both Yorke and Cole remained on the pitch. Such a move may be considered bold now but it paid dividends when they combined for a third. Yorke bundled through into the area only to be scythed down by goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi before Cole slotted home. They were on their way to Barcelona which turned out to be an even more memorable and dramatic evening.
United have had more resounding victories but not many more important. Back in 1999, a victory in Italy was a collector’s item for English teams whereas today they are almost common place. This was a breakthrough moment for Ferguson and his men. By beating Juventus in their own backyard, after falling two goals behind, nothing looked beyond that United team. Of course that year, it wasn’t.