By Alistair Hendrie
Which team did Manchester United fear the most during the mid-to-late nineties? Real Madrid? Borussia Dortmund? Arsenal? Wrong on all counts. It was Juventus. Sir Alex Ferguson was so in awe of Marcelo Lippi’s side that won the Champions League in 1996 that he studied many of Lippi’s traits and idiosyncrasies and applied them to his own team. “Juventus were the model for my United,” he admitted. “Just standing in the tunnel next to them was intimidating,” added full-back Gary Neville.
Heading into the Champions League in 1998-1999 United had won only once in their last four battles with Juventus and the pair were drawn together again in the semi-finals. United were written off, holding a record of two goals in Italy in their history. A 1-1 draw in the first meeting did them no favours but in the return leg in Turn, on 21st April 1999, United roared back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and progress to the final in what was considered one of the most thrilling turnarounds in European history. Until a few weeks later, of course.
Neville’s concerns became all the more reasonable when you looked at Juventus’ record of three consecutive Champions League finals in 1996, 1997 and 1998. In their ranks they boasted World Cup winner Zinedine Zidane, revered battler Edgar Davids and archetypal fox-in-the-box Filippo Inzaghi, who in the previous season bundled in 18 goals in Serie A after arriving from Atalanta. However, Lippi left a struggling bianconeri in February 1999, and although Carlo Ancelotti restored order, the former Chelsea manager hadn’t quite engineered the sort of form which helped Manchester United streak to the top of the Premier League and into the FA Cup Final, having vanquished Arsenal in the semis.
United travelled to Italy seven days after that success and it looked like there could have been an FA Cup hangover on the cards when they collapsed with an audible crash in the opening moments. Inzaghi helped himself to a brace in first eleven minutes, the first a close-range finish at the far post and the second via a looping deflection over Jaap Stam. Zidane whipped in an inswinger for the first as Inzaghi stole ahead of Neville. The second was less artistic as Inzaghi, turning with his back to goal, swiped a shot which fortuitously ballooned over Peter Schmeichel.
Watching Zidane was a bit like watching a stage actor playing out a part he’d played a hundred times before – he seemed to know what was about to happen before it happened. He was such a stylish and unflappable footballer. Inzaghi was a striker’s striker who loved scoring goals, however they went in. He marked both of his finishes with arms outstretched, eyes in a frenzy, sprinting away from his teammates. This was his moment, and only his.
Still, moments after Dwight Yorke was hauled down by Ciro Ferrara on the edge of the D – no foul, apparently – United earned a lifeline as Roy Keane ghosted in at the near post, unmarked, to head in a David Beckham corner which span to the danger area with menace and velocity. Ten minutes later, though, Keane misread Jesper Blomqvist’s square ball and clattered into Zidane. Yellow card. Keane was suspended for the final. “Roy was really shouting at me… I think he’s still mad at me,” said Blomqvist. The Irishman went on to run the rest of the game like a captain should.
It’s not that it was one of Keane’s best performances, it was more the fortitude and professionalism the former Nottingham Forest man showed to marshal his team and drive them on despite his own setback. For the last hour of the match, he made sure nobody in a red shirt put a foot wrong and played sensible passes, dribbled when possible and allowed Beckham to build up a head of steam down the wing. “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have ever seen on a football field,” said Ferguson.
With Keane on a yellow United surged forward and made it 2-2 when Andy Cole crossed for Yorke to head home. As such, the Englishmen had equalised for a second time in the tie and were on their way to Barcelona for the final. Yorke hung in the air beautifully, guiding the ball into the top corner so Angelo Peruzzi in the Juventus goal had no chance. He smacked the post moments later too, shooting on sight, driving across goal from 20 yards.
Ancelotti threw on Nicola Amoruso and Paolo Montero at half-time. He was going for it. So were United. The second half was a dog-fight that you couldn’t take your eyes off. Inzaghi rushed when one-on-one with Schmeichel, banging a shot straight at the Dane’s knees. He thought he’d scored a moment later – offside – and Stam stole across Amoruso when the Italian had a clear path to goal.
Keane led by example and so, too, did Schmeichel. The Denmark international was a doubt for the second leg after suffering a groin injury and it was that with Raimond van der Gouw standing by as United’s second choice, the Dutchman could be thrown in at crunch time. There were no problems with Schmeichel’s mobility though. He stood up to Inzaghi and on more than one occasion sprinted into a pack of players to claim and spring a counter, aware of the threat Ancelotti’s men posed.
Schmeichel did look beaten on 83 minutes when Fonseca’s cross skidded across an open goal, but nobody in a black and white shirt could reach the delivery. By now, home fans were shuffling out, heads down, hoods up against the drizzle, and Yorke and Denis Irwin had already blown chances to seal it for United. Cole had no such trouble keeping his composure, converting a loose ball with six minutes remaining to send 6,000 travelling fans into raptures and fire United into their first European final for 31 years.
The match is still gripping viewing today and the rain, Juventus’s support and the gaping, yawning, cavernous Stadio delle Alpi only added to the element of theatre. The second half in particular unfolded like a computer game as both teams attacked as if battling for their lives at the bottom of the table rather than navigating their way to Europe’s biggest prize. It’s a shame, too, that this Houdini moment is overlooked by United’s heroics against Bayern Munich in the final – also a stellar feat of escapology, it has to be said.
It’s true that with the will of Keane and the tandem offence of Yorke and Cole, United never knew when they were beaten. They went on to complete a historic Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble in 1999 which earned Ferguson a knighthood and sent these players – many of them academy graduates – into club folklore. They became the first English side to upend Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi since 1980 and frankly made a mockery of their tag as underdogs. Neville and Ferguson would never tremble at the thought of Juventus again.
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