Ranking Manchester United's Best Champions League Nights at Old Trafford
Champions League football returns to Old Trafford for the first time in a little under two years on Tuesday night, and fans are excited.
Once upon a time, big European nights at Manchester United's home ground were almost taken for granted. Under Sir Alex Ferguson's stewardship fans could be pretty sure they would keep coming.
That has dried up since his departure. David Moyes had a decent crack at it, with the 1-1 draw versus Bayern Munich generating an amazing atmosphere, but other than that, it has all been a bit of a mess. Last season's Europa League campaign ended in important triumph but failed to set pulses racing along the way—at least not in the positive sense.
But before it all went wrong, there was a lot to celebrate.
There are lots of things that go into making a great footballing night. There is the atmosphere, the style of play on show and, of course, the result. We are combining those to rank the best nights in the modern incarnation of the competition based on one simple factor: How happy were the fans when they went home?
Let's take a trip down memory lane, hoping all the while that Jose Mourinho will find a way to bring some of the good times back to Old Trafford.
Honourable Mention: 4-3 vs. Real Madrid—April 23, 2003
We cannot include this in the actual list because fans did not go home "happy," having seen their team win the game but lose the tie 6-5 on aggregate. But we have to give it an honourable mention because this is one of the best football matches Old Trafford has ever witnessed, and the fans did leave knowing they had witnessed something truly special.
It was a knock-down, drag-out fight contested by two teams full of devastating attacking talent. The game took place in the shadow of the will-he, won't-he rumours about David Beckham leaving for Real Madrid, and he was excluded from the starting lineup.
But the star of the show was Ronaldo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, who lit up the occasion in a way his namesake would come to do frequently for both clubs. He scored a hat-trick, and when he was taken off the pitch, he was afforded that most rare honour, a standing ovation from the home faithful for an opposition player. Rarely has that honour been more richly deserved.
This was a brilliant game, featuring a brilliant player, and the ovation he received was a brilliant moment. A forum poster quoted on the BBC Sport report of the game wrote "Probably the greatest game of football I have ever witnessed. The fans—magnificent; Manchester United—magnificent; Real Madrid—out of this world."
A fitting description of a truly memorable occasion.
Honourable Mention: 3-2 vs. Milan—April 24, 2007
Another one that misses out because fans left not knowing the outcome of the tie, but they surely worried about Milan's two away goals. In the end, that worry was justified as United lost the second leg 3-0 in Italy.
It has to get a mention, though, because, again, it was a cracking game of football. As a standalone occasion, it was a special one, which featured a dramatic ending as Wayne Rooney scored a late winner and celebrated with abandon.
It was a moment that has lived long enough in the memory to have been cited a few times by fans as one of their favourite Rooney moments in a recent B/R article on the subject. It cannot make the final list, as United did not end up progressing, but it was a great night nonetheless.
5: 4-1 vs. Schalke 04—May 4, 2011
The 2011 Champions League final was an unhappy moment for United fans, who saw their team utterly demolished by a Barcelona side who had made tremendous strides even since their impressive 2-0 win in the 2009 final. United, on the other hand, seemed to have gone backwards in the intervening years. By a long, long way.
But though the destination was painful, the journey was a great deal of fun. And rarely have United been involved in a Champions League semi-final tie that was just out-and-out fun in the way this one was.
Schalke 04 were not at the level of the rest of the teams in the late stages of the competition. Manuel Neuer was clearly a star in the making, and Raul was enjoying his swansong, but United's lineup was a long way from their best and was more than enough. With a 2-0 lead from the first leg in the bag, Fergie picked Anderson and Darron Gibson in the centre of midfield.
And they bossed it. Anderson scored two and Gibson one as United made it look easy. Because, frankly, it was pretty easy. Fans went home with a spring in their step and their confidence raised.
If only the final had turned out the same way.
4: 2-0 vs. Inter Milan—March 3, 1999
There were many memorable games in United's 1998/99 season, but this is probably the pick of the bunch in terms of European ties at home. The 1-1 semi-final result at home against Juventus probably had supporters concerned about the second leg. They need not have worried, of course, as the Red Devils put in a genuine contender for the best performance in the history of the club in Turin.
But the quarter-final saw a fine home win that was memorable in large part because of the contributions of Beckham and Dwight Yorke. They twice combined as Beckham put in superb crosses that Yorke finished.
The England international had been under tremendous public scrutiny ahead of this game, as Inter's lineup featured Diego Simeone, the player who had effectively coaxed Beckham into getting himself sent off during the 1998 FIFA World Cup. A national hate campaign had followed, but Beckham was more than equal to the pressure and was at his brilliant best in the supportive surroundings of Old Trafford.
Fans went home happy, en route to the club's most historic achievement.
3: 4-0 vs. AC Milan—March 10, 2010
Beckham was a big part of why fans went home happy after this one, too. He was a Milan player by this point, and this was his homecoming. He was given a glorious reception with his name sung throughout the game. When he came on as a substitute, he received rapturous applause and was then affectionately booed as soon as he touched the ball.
When his long-range shot hit the bar, it was hard not to think there were as many United fans disappointed as Milan fans. The Red Devils were, of course, 3-0 up by that point, with the tie effectively over.
But it was a post-game moment that most sparked joy in the fans. The game had seen fierce protests against the club's ownership, with scarves raised aloft in the green and gold once worn by Newton Heath. Enormous "Love United, Hate Glazer" banners were unfurled in the Stretford End as United's support coalesced around its frustrations with their administration.
That has now dissipated, but at the time, it was fierce. And when Beckham, given the chance to receive applause from the crowd after the game, broke off from his path towards the tunnel to pick up a protest scarf and draped it around his neck, he received the biggest cheer of the night.
A 4-0 win, a hero's return and a vocal protest that felt significant at the time. It was quite the European night at Old Trafford.
2: 1-0 vs. Barcelona—April 29, 2008
If this list was based on most important nights, or really any other criteria than how happy fans were when they went home, this would be No. 1. As it is, another game captures that position.
But this game was really, really special as United defended like lions, and their fans generated what might just have been the best atmosphere at Old Trafford in this millennium.
Barcelona were not quite the all-conquering force they were just about to become, but they were close. With a 0-0 from the Nou Camp in the bag, United knew conceding would be a disaster. They set up to spoil the Catalans' football, and they succeeded.
And, of course, they were sent through to the final by a spectacular goal from one of their favourite sons. Paul Scholes' volley in this game was among the best of his career. To score it under the pressure of these conditions was all the more remarkable. It was an incredible moment, part of an incredible season.
1: 7-1 vs. Roma—April 10, 2007
The grins have rarely been wider among United fans than they were after this one. They had lost the first leg 2-1, and there had been a fair amount of aggro for their travelling supporters to deal with, certainly by 2007 standards.
Their team got its revenge in the most remarkable fashion. Two goals from Michael Carrick, two from Cristiano Ronaldo and one each from Rooney, Patrice Evra and Alan Smith saw them rack up a scoreline no one had even begun to imagine. It was 7-1! Against Roma!
United fans knew by this point that the side Sir Alex was building around Rooney and Ronaldo could be destined for great things, and this seemed like proof. This was when dreams of another European Cup and another era of United dominance started to coalesce into reality.
This game made United fans just about as happy as football has ever made anyone. It's hard to think of a better memory that did not involve lifting a trophy. For that, it belongs at No. 1.