Europe the measure of greatness for giants

Blue chip Barca and United only boast blue collar records in the competition, writes Miguel Delaney

IT WAS typical of Alex Ferguson. On the night of one of his greatest achievements, he couldn’t help thinking it still wasn’t enough. As he stood behind the giant European Cup in the early hours of May 23, 2008, drenched by Moscow rain but also the sensation of success, the Manchester United manager gave one of his customary speeches on how his team’s stats in the competition don’t befit their stature as a club.

“We have made one step forward towards getting a respectable figure in terms of Champions League wins. Now we want to add more and get up there alongside the Liverpools, Bayern Munichs and Ajaxs.”

But, notably, not the Barcelonas. One of the many subplots to this season’s Champions League showpiece at Wembley is that one of the two finalists will finally lift a fourth trophy. Or, as Ferguson himself put it, reach a “respectable figure”.

The winners will properly pull away from the likes of FC Porto and Nottingham Forest to join the competition’s true giants.

As it stands, both Barcelona and United occupy a secondary perch with Inter Milan in the European Cup’s pantheon, holding three trophies each. But it’s only been like that recently. Of the six they share, half have come in the last five years. And five have come in the last 20, since the old European Cup was consumed by the Champions League.

So, for the vast majority of the competition’s history, two of its most blue-chip clubs have had blue-collar accounts. It’s taken both clubs over five decades to create the kind of European dynasties they have desired.

There are many reasons.

In 1956-57, the competition’s second season, the Busby Babes famously announced their brilliance by annihilating Anderlecht 10-0. They would then go on to produce one of its most memorable comebacks, recovering from a 5-3 defeat at Spanish champions Athletic Bilbao to win 3-0 at Old Trafford.

Three seasons later, a breathtaking Barcelona would trump even that. Over six games in 1959-60, they put eight past CDNA Sofia, seven past Milan and nine past Wolves. In typically bombastic fashion, iconic manager Helenio Herrera held court at Birmingham airport.

“You in England are playing now in the style we continentals used to many years ago, with much physical strength but no method, no technique.”

Respected English journalist John Camkin went further: “In my memory Barcelona will stand above Honved, Real Madrid and any other outstanding club team of the post-war years.”

But Camkin’s comments would soon be consigned to memory themselves. Real duly eliminated Barcelona in the semi-finals, just as they had done to the Busby Babes in 1956-57. Europe’s dominant team offered two timely reminders of who the competition’s real kings were.

As such, it seemed appropriate that United would have to overcome Real on the way to their maiden trophy in the 1967-68 semi-finals. Despite going 3-1 down by half-time in the Bernabeu second leg, Busby reminded his utterly deflated players that it was still only 3-2 on aggregate.

“The thing to do is attack them from the restart,” Busby said.

“You, David [Sadler]! Move up field and surprise them.”

In the 73rd minute, Sadler did just that. And Bill Foulkes scored the crucial goal five minutes later.

United eventually beat Benfica 4-1 in the final, banishing all the doubts and ghosts of Munich 10 years after the air disaster. The raw emotion of that victory has understandably created an aura about that 68 team. But it also overshadowed the fact that it was a completely isolated achievement. Every other team who won the European Cup in the 60s at least reached one more final in that era — Benfica, Milan, Real, Inter and even Celtic. Not United, who fizzled out all too quickly.

Barca also reached a final in that decade. And, along the way to the 1960-61 showpiece, they had become the first team to knock Real Madrid out of Europe. But, by then, they had also sacked Herrera for the previous season’s semi-final defeat. It would prove a watershed in the club’s history. He would go on to win two European Cups at Inter. Barca would lose the 1961 final to Benfica and not even see the competition’s first round for another 13 years.

Indeed, it is a historical anomaly that, from that 1961 final to the introduction of the group stages in 1991-92, both Barca and United barely figured. In 31 seasons of the competition — in other words, the majority of its history — they only featured in four.

But it also meant they missed the era of mega-rallies. While Ajax and Bayern racked up three-in-a-rows and Liverpool won four European Cups in eight seasons, Barca and United mostly wallowed in the wilderness. The Catalans did reach the final in 1986. But their utter obsession with making up for lost time ultimately created a paralysing anxiety that played into Steaua Bucharest’s hands.

Infamously, it took United almost two decades to find the right replacement for Busby in Ferguson. At Barca, Herrera was partly sacked because of the Camp Nou’s poisonous inner politics. They continued to hold the club back until a figure as headstrong as Johan Cruyff bullishly broke down so many barriers. Unsurprisingly, he finally lifted the club’s first European Cup in 1992.

That’s also why there’s a certain irony to the current era. In contrast to the majority of Spanish league history, Barca have become a relative model of how to run a team while Real are seemingly mired in perpetual political crisis.

At Old Trafford, Ferguson has also reversed the trends of the past. From an era when he struggled to get United past the Champions League group stages in the mid-90s, he will now walk out to his third final in four years. That’s as close as almost anyone has got to domination in the last 20 years.

There were, of course, more reasons than the manager’s learning curve for United failing to lift more trophies in the 90s. For a start, English clubs had to effectively learn to walk again in Europe after Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan had shown the rest of the continent to leap in the years of the Heysel ban. The last two decades have also proved the most diverse in the European Cup’s history with no side capable of retaining it.

In that, both Barca and United have been unfortunate that their most successful eras have coincided with the Champions League’s most competitive. And they’re even more unfortunate that they must cross paths again.

But then, looked at another way, this is an era of Champions League domination that both clubs have long envied. Perhaps appropriately, they beat each other on the way to their last victories — United overcame Barca in the 2008 semi-finals before the Catalans unravelled United in the following season’s final.

They’ve undoubtedly been the competition’s most successful sides over the last half-decade, sharing three trophies and, now, a second final. One of history’s greatest managers meets one of history’s greatest teams once again.

It’s just up to one of them to truly confirm their stature.


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