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Reliving Manchester United’s 1998/99 Champions League Campaign

“You have to feel, this is their year. Is this their moment? Beckham into Sheringham … and Solskjaer has won it!’’

These were the words uttered by Clive Tyldesley as Manchester United scored their second injury-time goal to secure a Champions League trophy on one of the most famous nights in the club’s history. The European campaign of 1998/99 ended in victory and meant United had won the Treble, the greatest achievement in club football.

It all began in what was coined the ‘group of death’, consisting of FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Brøndby, the lesser known Danish side. United had finished runners-up in the league the previous season to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, which forced them into a Qualifier against Polish side, LKS Lodz. United ran out 2-0 winners on aggregate and were drawn into Group D. Their first game came at home against Spanish giants Barcelona, and it was a spectacle, to say the least.

United dominated the opening proceedings, taking a 2-0 lead through Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Barcelona gradually grew into the game and brought the scores level after a Sonny Anderson goal and a penalty from Giovanni. David Beckham put United back into the lead with a trademark free-kick, only for the Reds to be reduced to 10 men minutes later as Nicky Butt was sent off for stopping a goal with his hand. Disciplinary problems would go on to be a consistent issue during that campaign. Luis Enrique buried the resulting penalty and United managed to cling on for a point. The game’s pace and chaos would prove to be a microcosm of United’s competition.

The next game saw United head to Munich, and it seemed the reds were going to grab a crucial three points as they led 2-1 with minutes to play, the goals courtesy of Dwight Yorke and Scholes again. However, an uncharacteristic mistake from the Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel, enabled Bayern to equalise and snatch a point. This left United in a bit of a precarious position, sitting third in the group. Fears of not qualifying were eased somewhat as United went on to record convincing wins against Brøndby, 6-2 in Denmark and 5-0 in Manchester. These wins moved United to the summit of the group, but qualification was far from assured.

The Reds next game was the return fixture in Barcelona, and once again the sides drew 3-3. United were immediately on the backfoot, going behind after just 49 seconds. Goals from Yorke and Andy Cole reversed the deficit, but a Rivaldo free-kick drew things level. The game was open and end to end, and soon United made the most of it, with another Yorke goal restoring the lead. The game was levelled with 20 minutes to play as Rivaldo notched his second, this time an unbelievable overhead kick. Despite chances for both sides, it finished 3-3, leaving Sir Alex Ferguson’s side 2ndwith one to play.

The one was a home game against Bayern, which once again ended in United picking up a point, this time in a 1-1 draw. Roy Keane’s driven shot from outside the box was cancelled out after some lapse defending allowed Hasan Salihamidzic to score. United finished the group as runners-up, which was not automatically enough for qualification then. However, with other results going their way, they went through, as the second best runners-up, to face Internazionale in the quarter-finals.

Having the home leg first is always a tough task, but United gave themselves a strong chance of progressing with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford. Both goals were provided by Beckham and finished off by Yorke, as Inter couldn’t find a crucial away goal. The return leg had to be a strong defensive performance if United were to progress, and with some luck, they managed it. Schmeichel put in another fantastic European display to deny Ronaldo amongst others, whilst the woodwork and some debatable refereeing decisions meant the game finished 1-1. Despite Inter piling on the pressure after their first goal, a late goal from Scholes all but settled the tie.

United progressed to the last four, where they faced Juventus. Once again, United were forced to play the first leg at home. The Italian side’s midfield dominated the game with Zinedine Zidane, Antonio Conte, and Edgar Davids running the show as United struggled. It was Conte who got the devastating away goal and although they couldn’t add to it, it appeared the dream of the Treble was fading. With seconds left though, Giggs scrambled home an equaliser to give United a glimmer of hope.

Ferguson knew his men would have to be quick out of the starting blocks in the second leg if they were to reach the final, but they were anything but. Within 11 minutes Filippo Inzaghi had grabbed a brace, leaving United 3-1 down on aggregate and seemingly dead and buried. What followed was one of the great European comebacks and is sometimes forgotten because of the subsequent events in Barcelona. Captain Keane started off proceedings with a brave header from a corner, meaning United only needed one more. 10 minutes later it came, as Yorke grabbed another with his head to put United ahead on away goals.

The only downside of the night came on the disciplinary side; Keane picked up a booking for a challenge on Zidane, meaning he’d go on to miss the final. The same fate befell Scholes, who was booked for a silly two-footed challenge. There were chances for both sides, with Denis Irwin hitting the post and Inzaghi having a third ruled out for offside. But as Juventus pressed for a winner, United hit on the break and Cole scored the goal which sealed it. United won 3-2 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.

So, to Barcelona, where the reds faced Bayern once again. United fell behind early to a set piece from Mario Basler, immediately putting them on the back foot. Despite piling on the pressure, chances were few and far between and it seemed an equaliser just wouldn’t come. Bayern nearly added a second as the bar saved Schmeichel’s blushes in his final game for the club. The German side had numerous chances to kill the game off, hitting the woodwork twice more with the Great Dane helpless.

By this point Ferguson had given it his last shot, throwing on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the baby-faced assassin. This put Beckham out on the right having operated centrally for most of the game. In the first minute of added time it paid dividends; Becks’ long run resulted in a corner. Schmeichel was forward, and Beckham’s corner went towards him. The ball fell to the edge of the box and Giggs, who’s drive was re-directed into the back of the net by Sheringham. The dream was still alive.

Following an equaliser, thoughts turned to extra-time. But, just two minutes later Beckham sent in another corner from the same side. This time Sheringham turned provider as he flicked it on, with the ball flying to Solskjaer at the back-post, and the Norwegian made no mistake. The game finished 2-1 and United had pulled off the impossible all over again, securing the club’s first ever Treble. It was the end of probably the greatest season in United’s history.

Written by Rob Potter

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