On a clear autumn’s evening in Manchester, a young midfielder trembles on the Old Trafford touchline. Hearing the rousing din of 50,000 supporters inside English club football’s biggest stadium was an immense sensation at such a nascent time in his career. Although he would soon develop into the most technically exquisite midfielder of his generation, the then untested 18-year-old gazed in awe at the most aesthetically pleasing sight in modern football: a David Beckham free-kick flying through the air, with only the back of the net stopping it.
The young midfielder’s name was Xavi Hernández.
Yes, that Xavi’s Champions League debut is a mere footnote to Manchester United 3-3 draw with Barcelona in September 1998 highlights what a wild and breathless game it was. Twenty years on, it remains one of Old Trafford’s most electrifying European nights, one which set the tone for United’s defining continental adventure.
It was a game that shook Europe. United and Barça, two club giants, produced a spectacular contest with six goals, two penalties and a red card, one that cooked up a spellbinding concoction of Brazilian skill, questionable refereeing, and Beckham’s mastery over a dead ball.
The thousands that watched from the stands, singing and howling into the Manchester night, thought they’d never see another game like it. They weren’t the only ones. Watching events unfold inside the Theatre of Dreams, you would have been encouraged to predict the 1998/99 Champions League peaked early.
In fact, the same two teams were to outdo themselves two months later when they met in the Camp Nou, once again sharing six goals and once again thrilling the watching world. In the end, it was heartache for Barcelona but ecstasy for United, who six months later would become the kings of Europe on another famous night in Catalonia.
Before they reached that apogee, though, United negotiated a deadly Champions League group. Six games headlined against Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Brøndby by two titanic encounters against the champions of Spain. This is the story of the first encounter.
Manchester United 3-3 Barcelona // September 16, 1998
A night that featured Beckham heroics, Yorke acrobatics and a token headed goal from Giggs would still end in disappointment for United.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side led twice; a Giggs and Scholes one-two punch established a two-goal cushion inside 25 minutes only for Barça to battle back. Beckham’s sublime free-kick put United in the ascendancy once more, only for a controversial penalty to give Louis van Gaal’s men another lifeline. Luis Enrique converted beyond Peter Schmeichel but only after Rivaldo had duped Stefano Braschi, the Italian referee, into awarding a spot-kick following minimal contact from Jaap Stam.
United weren’t happy. For all the headlines hailing Ferguson’s bold, cavalier style, it was viewed within the club as having squandered a wonderful opportunity to put three points on the board at the first time of asking.
With Bayern and Brøndby completing the Group of Death, Ferguson was acutely aware of the daunting European assignments that lay ahead. The Scot upbraided his players for frittering away a two-goal lead and wasn’t best pleased when they lost 3-0 to Arsenal at Highbury four days later.
Then again, United could be partially excused for showing signs of weariness against the Gunners following a bruising battle with Barcelona. Synonymous with beautiful, flowing football these days, Van Gaal’s Barça in 1998 were a grittier predecessor to the all-conquering tiki-taka masters shaped in Pep Guardiola’s image a decade later. Like it was when the sides met in 1994, United knew it was going to be part bullfight, part ballet.
Barça were made up of four Dutchmen, three Brazilians, three Spaniards and one Portuguese. Phillip Cocu, a shrewd midfield operator, was sandwiched between two attack-minded Brazilians in Rivaldo and enigmatic winger Giovanni, who would later butt heads with Van Gaal and launch a blistering tirade against the Dutchman, branding him “the Hitler of the Brazilian players.”
What Van Gaal’s backline lacked in hair, they made up for in balls. Makeshift full-back Luis Enrique spent most of his evening taking wild swipes at Giggs as Abelardo trained his eyes on Dwight Yorke, United’s record signing, who that night offered his doubters the most convincing demonstration of his credentials as a Red Devils frontman. The final member of the back four was Sergi Barjuán, the hairy-armed, tough-tackling left-back charged with the unenviable task of shutting down Beckham’s right foot, the United strikers’ main line of supply.
Barça’s trident in attack was comprised of Luís Figo, Sonny Anderson and Boudewijn ‘Bolo’ Zenden who, like fellow Dutchman Reiziger, would later pop up at Middlesbrough for a single season in 2004.
United’s line-up was a strong one. Schmeichel was protected by a back four of Gary Neville, Jaap Stam, Henning Berg and Denis Irwin. Beckham and Giggs provided width outside of a formidable engine room pairing of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Ole Gunnar Solskjær partnered Yorke up front with Andy Cole, Yorke’s chief partner in crime that season, once again benched by Fergie, with the England striker struggling to regain his place after an indifferent display in August’s 0-0 stalemate at West Ham.
Although Cole scored 24 goals that season, United didn’t miss him on the night.
Barcelona had been weakened significantly by injury and ineligibility to the point where Van Gaal felt compelled to draft Enrique, an attacking midfielder, into right-back. Club captain Guardiola, the de Boer brothers, Frank and Ronald, and Patrick Kluivert, who joined the Catalan giants that summer after rejecting a move to United, were also missing.
As such, United were considered the favourites – and they certainly started with an air of superiority. Fergie’s men set a blistering tempo. Giggs and Beckham tormented the Barça full-backs and United’s first clear sight of goal came after ten minutes when Reiziger gifted possession to Beckham. The winger then clipped a delightful ball that whistled so tantalisingly over Abelardo’s head. Giggs, at the end of a darting run, hooked the ball back into Solskjær’s path.
Five yards out; the goal gapes. Solskjær pulls the trigger. It’s the kind of scenario on which you’d bet your life savings but, then again, United didn’t deal in the ordinary much that season. The Stretford End howled in frustration but, six minutes later, that frustration was replaced with ecstasy.
Beckham, intent on prolonging Sergi’s nightmarish start, brushed past him and swung a cross straight deep into the box and onto Giggs’ head. The Welshman’s finish was unerring, nodding the ball back across Hesp and into the far corner. The breakthrough. United opened with all the fluency, swerve and swagger that made watching them under the floodlights such spellbinding theatre.
Seven minutes later, Scholes made it two. United simply wouldn’t relent. Programmed to attack, there was no reprieve for the Barça defence. All they could see was a blur of white in front of them (United wore their away strip because Barça’s away strip was orange).
Out of the Manchester night, the ball dropped. Launched into the stratosphere by Schmeichel, it was tracked by Solskjær who, having eluded Sergi, found Beckham. With his range dialled-in, he stabbed a left-footed cross to Yorke, whose twisting bicycle kick produced a sharp save from Hesp. Much to the Dutchman’s vexation, the ball bounced back off Enrique and into Scholes’ obliging path.
It was 2-0 with 24 minutes gone. United were flying. Old Trafford was bouncing to the tune of “Kluivert, Kluivert, what’s the score?” With much of the early-season press dedicated to Rupert Murdoch’s mooted £623m takeover, fans were glad that, for 90 minutes at least, they could forget about the tabloid mogul and escape into football.
Closing in a buoyant result on which to kick-start their campaign, suddenly this journey into the Mancunian night took a turn. Barcelona finally regained their composure and, once they did, they were unnerved United. After 33 minutes, the visitors had the ball in the net. Neville failed to deal with a cross and Rivaldo pounced. His shot struck Scholes and evaded Schmeichel, but the goal was erroneously chalked off for offside.
It failed to dishearten Barça, though, who steadily built momentum as United retreated. Anderson’s enthusiasm remained undimmed too. Thwarted by Schmeichel on the stroke of half-time, Sonny Anderson – another Brazilian who took exception to Van Gaal’s perceived Dutchification of Barça – pounced after some pinball action on the edge of United’s area and swept the ball beyond the Dane.
Van Gaal’s reaction was minimal but he knew his side were in the ascendancy. So did Fergie. Increasingly agitated, the United boss withdrew Solskjær and sent Nicky Butt into the fray. It proved insufficient. Three minutes after Butt’s introduction, Rivaldo was felled by Stam. The Brazilian’s reaction was risible, lying flat on the turf, his arm pressed against his forehead like some damsel in distress.
But Stam did foul him and the penalty offered Barça a chance to restore parity. Giovanni, unflinching in the face of Schmeichel’s gargantuan frame, dispatched the spot-kick into the top corner and silenced Old Trafford on the hour.
Then, just as Barça dreamed of victory, Beckham intervened. The architect of United’s first two, he trained his eye on Hesp’s goal as the referee ordered Barça’s wall back. It seemed to take forever. A minute after having placed the ball, Beckham ran up and sent a spectacular free-kick inside Hesp’s right-hand post.
Old Trafford came alive as Becks wheeled away in celebration. He fumbled an attempted knee-slide celebration, but it was immaterial. What mattered was his magnificent contribution at such a critical juncture. Suddenly it was Barça’s dream that looked to be turning to dust. But van Gaal’s men breathed once more.
They found the equaliser after a truly extraordinary sequence. Cornered by Neville and Butt, Enrique produced a piece of magic, nutmegging the latter before crossing to Anderson. His diving header came back off the crossbar to Zenden, who pulled back to Rivaldo. His first-time effort was blocked by Schmeichel’s legs. Anderson’s rebound was blocked by Butt and, just as Figo blasted home, the referee blew his whistle. Butt had used his arm to prevent Anderson and was sent off.
Humiliated by Enrique a moment earlier, the midfielder’s night came to an end 15 minutes after replacing Solskjær. As Butt headed for an early shower, Enrique converted Barça’s second penalty, with Giovanni having been replaced by Xavi.
In the end, United were lucky to get away with a point when Anderson, played in by a delightfully disguised from Rivaldo, spun and lashed wide. Schmeichel, amazed at the ease with which Anderson turned away from Roy Keane, was apoplectic. The fans weren’t pleased either. Braschi’s final whistle was met with chants of “the referee’s a wanker” cascading down from the terraces.
That United tore straight into Barça from the outset was surprising to no one. The alacrity and abandon shown in pouring forward guaranteed thrills but left them wide open and, when Real Madrid won 3-2 at Old Trafford the following season, it led to a profound philosophical switch on Fergie’s part, the coach recognising that his players could not forge a European dynasty by simply outscoring the opponent.
United’s miraculous powers of resilience effectively masked the risks inherent in such a swashbuckling style. Squandering a two-goal lead to eventually escape with a point against Barça was a harbinger of the doom that awaited next season. Ferguson could have been pardoned for advocating that brand of football, considering the attacking artillery at his disposal. However, viewed through the pragmatism of football tactics in 2018, Ferguson’s half-time assertion that United ‘could score more goals’ seems imprudent now.
The United manager’s post-match assessment struck a similar chord. “The perfect football match,” he said. “Both teams trying to win with scant regard for the consequences. That’s how football should be played and in a sense this match was a throwback to the days before detailed organisation of teams.”
By the time United and Barcelona next met, in the 2008 semi-finals, Ferguson’s approach wasn’t quite as death-or-glory, admitting through his tactics that his players could not match the Catalans blow-for-blow, as demonstrated in the two finals in 2009 and 2011.
But United thought differently in 1998. A humbling defeat to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals in 2000 would encourage a significant philosophical change on Fergie’s part but, en route to the famous Treble, he sent his players out with all guns blazing – and nowhere was this intrepidity more thrillingly realised than in their memorable diptych against Barcelona.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11
Coming soon: Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United (November 1998)