Under the great Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United won the European Cup, or UEFA Champions League, two times. Once, as part of an emphatic treble in 1999, and another as part of an impressive double in 2008. The question is if the two were to play a match against each other, who would win?
Each squad was littered with quality from the power and precision of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs to the grace and elegance of, well, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. Besides those two, each team had leaders, talisman, and match winners; all the key ingredients for a team to be successful.
One factor that may contribute to the outcome of this comparison is the fact these teams are basically a decade apart and football evolved a lot in those nine years. The technology of the balls changed, pitches became better, and the boots became superior. In addition, teams became more tactically astute, especially on the European stage.
Moving on to the comparison of the teams, let’s start with the goalkeepers:
The treble-winning squad had arguably United’s best ever goalkeeper between the sticks, in the form of ‘the Great Dane’, Peter Schmeichel. Ferguson described him as the “bargain of the century”, which speaks volumes for itself, while others have gone on to describe Schmeichel as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.
The 2008 squad had Edwin van der Sar, once again, arguably one of United’s greatest goalkeepers. In fact, Ferguson conceded that he wished he signed Van der Sar in 1999 after the departure of Schmeichel. Although more expensive than Schmeichel at £2 million, Ferguson maintained that Van der Sar was one of his best signings, a statement with which many United fans will agree.
Overall, although both goalkeepers were terrific for United, Schmeichel edges it, because not only was he a brilliant goalkeeper, he was also a presence, an aura, and a charismatic leader within his penalty area. And his somersault after Solksjaer’s winner was also impressive.
Moving onto the defence. Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnson vs. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the clash of the titans. Stam was voted the best defender in Europe the year United won the treble, which demonstrates how influential his presence was in that back four. Ronny Johnson could be seen as the unsung hero of the defence, with pundits and fans alike focusing on the defensive contribution of Stam, Neville and Irwin. However, as a pair, Ferdinand and Vidic were stronger, with Vidic possessing all the qualities Stam had; tenacity, fearless, brave, leadership and a warrior willing to risk his all for his team. This in comparison to the calm and collected Ferdinand made for a perfect partnership of silk and steel, starting 41 games in the 2007/2008 season. At fullback, Gary Neville was an established international by 1999, and a homegrown product, famously part of the ‘Class of 92’. Neville surely would have been his ever-consistent self in the 2008 side but he had an injury plagued season, so Wes Brown deputised for him in standard no-nonsense fashion. In terms of the stronger right-back, Neville wins hands down, with Brown being a natural centre back. At left-back, Denis Irwin work-rate, versatility and dependability, provided a constant threat and will go down as one of United’s all-time greats, and although Patrice Evra was a committed, attacking fullback in 2008, there really is no comparison between the two. As a collective unit, the ’99 side conceded 63 goals. Meanwhile, the 07/08 side only conceded 32 goals and the statistics don’t lie, therefore the 07/08 defence wins this round.
The midfield of both sides features Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes although, back in ’99 they were in their prime and by 2008, had to adjust their game, just one of the many signs of how brilliant they both were. Three of United’s midfield four in 1999 were part of the ‘Class of ‘92’, those three being Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Scholes’ partnership with Keane allowed him to play his natural game and get forward compared to 2008 when the departure of Keane allowed him develop as a player and became the main pin, one step ahead of everyone else. The midfield partnership of Keane-Scholes, combined with the flair and pace of Giggs and the dead-ball specialities of Beckham, made for a perfect balance in midfield. The pinpoint accuracy of Scholes and Beckham fed United’s strikers and constantly provided a goal scoring option. The leadership of Roy Keane in the midfield was crucial in the team spirit of the ’99 team, not just the midfield. His performance in the semi-final against Juventus would signal possibly Keane’s finest hour in a United shirt- a real shame he missed the final through suspension. United’s midfielders in 2008 featured Scholes, as mentioned but also Owen Hargreaves who had an injury-riddled time at Old Trafford but 2007/2008 was probably his finest season. However, he wasn’t quite the midfielder Keane was, though. The perfect balance in the treble-winning side edges it for this battle.
The most important job on a football pitch- putting the ball into the back of the net. It’s the area of the pitch where heroes are made and villains are created. The 1999 team had the almost telepathic partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. This goal against Barcelona in the group stage is just one example of how devastating the Yorke-Cole combination was. Due to the evolution of football in the nine years that followed the treble triumph, when 2008 came around, strike partnerships were not as common. The 2008 was spearheaded by Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who was undoubtedly the best player in the world at the time. It could be argued that the holy trinity of Rooney-Tevez-Ronaldo is the best attack United have had since the original holy trinity of Law-Charlton-Best in 1968, which in turn would mean it would surpass the 1999 attack. It is often underestimated how much defensive work Ronaldo did on that team. On numerous occasions, Ronaldo would pick up the ball in his own half and carry the ball 40 or 50 yards and earn a free kick and relieve the defenders of some pressure. Although the psychic partnership of Cole and Yorke was lethal with them scoring 53 goals between them, the pace and power of the triple threat of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez interlinking and combining was a joy watch and something United lack to this current day. In addition, Ronaldo is the best player out of both squads, in my opinion, and during that season, he won United games on several occasions.
With it being two goals apiece, this one is heading into extra time. Undoubtedly, the 2008 team has better individuals in numerous positions. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo is better than Dwight Yorke, Peter Schmeichel is better than Edwin van der Sar, Wayne Rooney is better than Andy Cole to name a few.
However, the thing that works in favour of the 1999 team is the substitutes- they were game changers. The likes of Teddy Sheringham (who scored in the FA Cup final and Champions League final), Ole Gunnar Solksjaer (who famously scored the winner in the Champions League final) and even players like Nicky Butt (who took Roy Keane’s place in the final due to the Irishman being suspended), played key parts during the season and all contributed to the club’s success. By no means was the 2008 squad depth lacking, however, it didn’t have the impact players like ’99.
Overall, the 2008 team had, individually, the better players. Nevertheless, the 1999 squad had the better team, the better collective unit, the team spirit and the never-say-die attitude. Let’s be honest, every United team under Ferguson had that never-say-die attitude but that ’99 team was the epitome of it.
The ref blows his whistle. The 1999 team takes this one 3-2.
Written by Jonny Webb