Manchester United and Bayern Munich will face each other in their opening match of the 2023-24 Champions League season at the Allianz Arena on Thursday, September 21.
Both teams come into the match in contrasting forms. While Bayern is unbeaten in the league and sits second in the Bundesliga standings, United has already lost three of its opening five fixtures in the Premier League and sits 13th.
It will not take rocket science to figure out that Thomas Tuchel’s Bayern is the favourite for this one.
However, when it comes to Champions League fixtures between the two, history shows that anything can happen on the night, the greatest example being the final of the 1998-99 season, where both teams clashed in the city of Barcelona.
Fasten your seatbelts. We are about to get on a time machine and relive the night of May 26, 1999.
The Camp Nou stadium, with its sprawling green and towering stands, lay in wait to host the final. Near the player’s tunnel, the iconic chapel must have witnessed many last-minute prayers. It was the last UCL final of the 20th century, and the final needed to match the shindig that preceded it.
Manchester United, having already won the Premier League and FA Cup, faced Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich. The two Goliaths fought toe to toe in a final, that was to be etched forever in the annals of Champions League football.
Being a Champions League final, the stakes were obviously high for both teams. Alex Ferguson’s team was one win away from creating history by becoming the first English club to win the fated treble (Premier League, FA Cup and the Champions League). They would have to win a competition that had eluded the club since 1968 when Matt Busby’s men beat Benfica at the historic Wembley Stadium.
Bayern Munich were also on course to win the treble. After winning the Bundesliga, Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team had to beat the Red Devils in the Champions League final and get the better of Bayer Leverkusen in the DfB Pokal final to be played later.
Man United and Bayern had faced each other earlier in the competition, having been drawn in Group D. While Bayern qualified for the knockouts as group topper, United’s qualification was less ceremonious as it did so by being one of the two best runners-up across all six groups.
United beat Italian giants Inter Milan and Juventus in the quarters and semis to reach the final, while Bayern beat fellow Germans Kaiserslautern in the quarterfinals, before overcoming Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv in the semis.
The night of the final
Legend among referees, Pierluigi Collina blew the whistle, and a thunderous roar engulfed Camp Nou. Manchester United kicked off and the final was underway.
Without the services of captain Roy Keane and midfielder Paul Scholes due to suspension, Manchester United was not at its strongest. Bayern enjoyed a distinct superiority on the pitch in all departments. While Ferguson’s troops were finding it difficult to pierce Bayern’s backline, the Bavarians made constant inroads in the final third early in the match.
The constant pressure bore fruit in the sixth minute. Man United centre-back Ronny Johnsen fouled Bayern striker Carsten Jancker just outside the penalty area. Mario Basler stood over the freekick, as Peter Schmeichel was visibly vocal in shaping his wall. But the wall was rendered useless. Instead of going over, Basler went low, around it. The gamble paid off, and Schmeichel was caught out. Bayern drew first blood.
Being a goal down, the urgency was visible from Ferguson’s troops. The English champion started to hog the ball, but the Bavarian backline of Markus Babbel, Thomas Linke, Samuel Kuffour and Michael Tarnat seemed to be in perfect sync. Add to that, Lothar Matthaus’ genius in bridging the gap between defence and offence, creating clear-cut chances became a laborious task for the Red Devils.
Jancker was a menace with his continuous runs behind the defence, and Bayern looked threatening on the counter.
Apart from a half-chance found by Cole in the Bayern box and a meek Ryan Giggs header, dealt easily by Bayern keeper Oliver Kahn, the balance tipped heavily on the Bavarian side at the stroke of half-time.
Ferguson and Hitzfeld had 15 minutes with their players, after which the second-half was underway.
Bayern laid down the marker early in the second-half, with Jancker forcing a save from Schmeichel within a minute after the restart.
With United’s attack looking more and more like a rudderless ship, Ferguson decided to bring on Teddy Sheringham in the 67th minute and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the 81st minute - those familiar with the story already know why these were two of the most impactful substitutions in Champions League history.
Bayern continued to have the upper hand, and the die could have been cast in the match on two occasions.
Mehmet Scholl, who came on in the 71st minute, almost scored Bayern’s second with a delicate chip. As the ball floated over Schmeichel, the Dane was helpless and by his own admission later, thought that it was already 2-0. But instead, the ball chose to rattle the crossbar and come back straight to the United keeper’s hands.
Bayern again came agonisingly close in the 82nd minute when Jancker went for the spectacular, but his overhead kick again came off the crossbar. By that time, those staunch believers in destiny, especially on the United side, believed it might just be the night of the Devils.
With the stipulated 90 minutes up, United got a corner just when the referee’s assistant showed three minutes of stoppage time on the board. It was time to throw the kitchen sink, and Schmeichel made the journey to the opposition goal to help out his team in the set-piece.
David Beckham took the corner, and his flighted ball went just over the United keeper’s head to Dwight Yorke, who put the ball back into the sea of bodies. Thorsten Fink failed to clear the ball, and it fell to Giggs at the edge of the area.
The Welshman snapped at the shot, but the connection was poor. However, it was enough for the ball to spin and fall at Sheringham’s feet, who swiped at the ball in a first-time attempt. The ball crept past Kahn, and United had finally scored the equaliser. There were shouts of offside from the Bayern players, but the flag stayed down, and United had forced extra-time.
With extra-time almost certain on the horizon, United got another corner, barely 30 seconds after Bayern had kicked-off after conceding the equaliser. Beckham stood over the ball again and after a scan inside the box, swung a cross to the near post.
The ball found Sheringham, who headed it across the face of goal. Solskjaer was the quickest to react and extended his leg to send the ball to the roof of the net. The Camp Nou erupted. The Norwegian celebrated with a classic knee-slide - quite similar to Basler when he found the net earlier. Schmeichel did a cartwheel inside his own area. Bayern players did not know what had hit them, and the shock was visible in the faces of the players.
While the United red burned bright in the stands, the Bayern red had fallen limp.
The game restarted, but the shock prevented many Bayern players from even getting up and carrying on as Collina was seen urging the players to keep playing and try till the final whistle. United held on and went on to secure its second European title and become the first English club to win the treble. There were hugs all around, and Ferguson embraced his staff. Collina later described the cheers of the fans as resembling that of a “lion’s roar.”
While United had all the reason to celebrate, further disappointment lay in store for Bayern. Missing out on the Champions League title, it had the chance to secure the domestic double. But Bayern lost the DfB Pokal final to Werder Bremen on penalties and ended the season with just the Bundesliga title.
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