Rivaldo, Roy Keane, two crazy nights and the conception of 'Football, bloody hell!'
ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK!!
Back in September 1998, Louis van Gaal brought a Barcelona side to Old Trafford that were reigning La Liga champions, and who would go on to retain their league title.
Manchester United had been pipped to the Premier League title by an upstart Arsenal side, but Alex Ferguson had strengthened by bringing in Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist. They also had Roy Keane back and fully fit after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
United won two and drew two of their first league games of that season and had Arsenal then Liverpool next up on the fixtures list. Those rivalries had to be parked for the arrival of Barca, who had four Dutch internationals in their starting XI. Ferguson went with the following team in a 4-4-2 formation:
United, roared on by the home support, were at their most gung-ho, reckless and most utterly compelling. These two games against Barca would be right up there with some of the most frantic and captivating of the Ferguson era.
Right from the start, United slammed their foot to the floor. Ryan Giggs was running lads inside and out, Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were not giving the defenders or holding midfielders a second to think and Dwight Yorke was running in and out of the backline.
Denis Irwin and Gary Neville were hurtling forward on the overlap but it was a perfectly flighted ball from David Beckham to Giggs that should have produced the opener. Giggs did what he was supposed to but Solskjaer, four yards out but under pressure from a sliding Michael Reiziger managed to ping the crossbar when the goal was left gaping.
It was a let-off, but not for long. 17 minutes had passed when Beckham made light work of Sergi (again) and lofted a beautiful, curling cross that Giggs headed home. The place erupted.
Giovanni had Barcelona's first shot in anger but it landed somewhere between rows G and H. Keane, who was snuffing out any signs of Barca resistance, tested Ruud Hesp from distance before United made it 2-0. Beckham found Yorke with another fine cross and the former Aston Villa striker's overhead was only parried for Scholes to score on the rebound.
30 minutes of manic pressing and wanton attack that Barcelona could not live with. United's only mistake was not making it 3-0 and killing off the tie for, with Luis Figo, Rivaldo and Luis Enrique on the pitch, Barca could bite back. Sonny Anderson was denied by Peter Schmeichel but it was 2-0 at the break.
The Catalans scored within a minute of the restart and it came via Anderson after the ball had ricocheted off the head of the tackled Rivaldo and fell to his feet. On 58 minutes, Rivaldo was fouled by Stam in the box and Giovanni made it 2-2.
It took that goal to spark United back into life and Beckham made it 3-2 with a curling free-kick from 30 yards out that found the top left-hand corner and evaded Hesp's desperate dive. "Boy, did United need that," exclaimed Clive Tyldesley on ITV.
On 70 minutes, all hell broke loose in the United box as Rivaldo's deft effort came back off the crossbar and sparked a frenzy of shots. Figo eventually scored but the referee had already whistled for a Nicky Butt hand-ball on the line. As the United sub trudged off, and Barca simmered, Enrique slotted home.
For all their early fire, United ended up hanging on with their 10-men. They had shown they were unafraid of Barca's superstars but many predicted a tougher time of it at the Nou Camp in two months' time.
Four days before the clash in Spain, United had been beaten 3-1 in the league - thanks to goals from Win Jonk and brace from winger Jens Niclas Alexanderssonand - by Sheffield Wednesday. From Hillsbrough to the Camp Nou...
Barcelona started an 18-year-old by the name of Xavi in this fixture and they were desperate for the three points. They had only collected four points in their opening four matches, having lost twice to an impressive Bayern Munich side.
United made three changes for this game, with Ryan Giggs (injured), Henning Berg and Solskjaer all missing out:
Within 90 seconds ok kick-off, the hosts were in front. Irwin headed a Luis Figo cross away but it fell to Sonny Anderson, who cut inside Neville and fired home. Schmeichel stopped Anderson from doubling Barca's lead before, on 25 minutes, Yorke gave Hesp the eyes (from the edge of the box) and tucked a shot into his bottom left corner.
Eight minutes into the second half and Yorke combined with Andy Cole for one of the best goals of the England international's career.
Yorke dummied a pass, from Keane, that was intended for him and set off for the Barcelona box. Cole found him with a quick pass and got it straight back from Yorke before crisply finishing and running to the corner flag to celebrate with an enclave of delirious United fans.
The United lead lasted only three minutes before Rivaldo wrong-footed the rash Schmeichel with a curling free-kick. On 68 minutes, Keane fed Beckham who delivered an inviting cross for Yorke to head home. He thought he had his hat-trick but was denied by the linesman's flag.
Keane had been impressive in the Old Trafford game but he excelled at the Nou Camp, with his tidy interventions, range of passing and calmness in possession in a white-hot atmosphere. Former United player Phil Neville recalled Keane's words to him early on in his career. Keane told him:
"If you're ever in trouble, even if I've got men around me, just give me the ball and I'll get you out of trouble."
Keane was the trouble-shooter that night and, when Barcelona did press heavily, he was often there to cover for the likes of Brown and Neville in defence.
Ferguson's side were close to a famous away win but it was Rivaldo that once again had his say on events. The Brazilian drifted into the box, between Stam and Neville, and controlled the ball on his chest before volleying the equaliser into the bottom corner.
Rivaldo absolutely thunked the crossbar with a rising drive, in the closing stages, but United held on.
Both sides, and their fans, had been brought close by a thrill-ride over the course of two absorbing games.
Two weeks and Keane scored a piledriver against Bayern that secured a draw and meant United reached the knock-out stages. Barcelona were eliminated but United and Bayern would meet again that season, at the Nou Camp in a final snatched by Ferguson's men.
"Football, bloody hell," was born that wild May night in 1999.
Without a doubt, it was conceived on that epic night at Old Trafford, September 16th 1998.