Manchester United renew Barcelona rivalry with another U.S. meeting
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Think of games between Manchester United and Barcelona games and the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011 jump to mind. The two games still provoke frustration among United fans, players and coaches, because a very good team didn't do themselves justice on either occasion.
"We knew how to play against Barcelona and we did that for the first 10 minutes, but you need to do it for 90 minutes," recalled United's then-goalkeeping coach Eric Steele of the 2009 final in Rome. "You have to press them high. If you allow them to play, you may as well throw a second ball on."
Two years later, United didn't learn their lessons for the final at Wembley.
"Again, we didn't follow our game plan," said Steele. "The full 11 need to be committed, but certain players got into pockets and you could see others getting disillusioned. You need to deny Barcelona the ball. If you have the ball, you can use it.
"When Barcelona get on top, you spend a lot of time chasing. Then it starts to affect you mentally. Did we have anyone who could lift us that day? No. Everyone was devastated. The last 20 minutes were a blur. There was no way back. We couldn't get the ball. You can't get back into a game if you can't get the ball.
By contrast to those recent memories, United fans of an older generation remember their club beating a Barcelona side, featuring Diego Maradona, 3-0 at Old Trafford in a 1984 European Cup Winners' Cup quarterfinal second leg. United had lost the first leg 2-0.
"That night was easily the best atmosphere I've experienced," explained Frank Stapleton, who scored one of United's goals. "Officially the crowd was 58,000 (then the Old Trafford capacity), but I'm convinced there were thousands more in the ground that night. We just knew we were going to win and the Barca players knew it too; you could see how nervous they were."
Seven years later, on a rainy night in Rotterdam, United beat Johan Cruyff's Catalans 2-1 in the Cup Winners' Cup final and, in 1998-99, the two sides drew 3-3 twice in a pair of epic Champions League encounters. In 2008, United won a European Cup semifinal thanks to a Paul Scholes strike that lit up a night which saw the best atmosphere inside Old Trafford this century.
Meanwhile, U.S.-based United fans have happy memories from preseason games played Stateside in 2003 and 2011. On Saturday, a third will be played in Santa Clara, Calif. at Levi's Stadium -- home of the next Super Bowl. The game is a 68,500 sell-out and United are fans expected to outnumber those of their opponents.
Twelve years ago, the newly-crowned Premier League champions beat Barcelona 3-1 in the first game played at Lincoln Field Stadium in Philadelphia. Diego Forlan scored twice in front of a capacity 68,396 crowd. Ruud van Nistelrooy got the third, while Patrick Kluivert scored for the Blaugrana.
"Sir Alex Ferguson knew everything about the opposition, even in friendlies," Forlan recalls. "Before that game he picked Xavi out, told me to get goalside of him when we defended and stay there. "Don't let him get the ball," he'd say. He was right and we won. I scored twice. Whenever I played against Xavi in Spain I'd do the same thing. Xavi used to say: 'Again, Diego!' Nobody played him like I did and that was because of Ferguson."
The United team on that August night featured new American signing Tim Howard, while Barca's current coach Luis Enrique, then the lungs of the Catalan side, was among the opponents. A slight 19-year-old called Andres Iniesta was among the substitutes for the Liga side.
The game was played during a summer in which the two clubs had gone head-to-head for the signature of Ronaldinho that summer. The Brazilian forward told his compatriot Kleberson that he was going to United but ended up joining Barca while Kleberson moved to Manchester.
In 2011, two months after the sides had met at Wembley, they went head-to-head again in front of 81,807 -- ticket sold out in two hours -- in Landover, Md., Extreme heat was not suitable for a football game or, indeed, to the well-being of travelling fans, but United and Barca manage to conjure enough feisty quality to satisfy the vast crowd.
The two teams that had been the best in the world for the preceding four years fielded much-changed starting XIs from the Champions League final. United's lineup had an average age five years younger than that which started at Wembley and valuable minutes were awarded to hopefuls like Tom Cleverley and Daniel Welbeck, as well as new signings David De Gea and Ashley Young.
Nani's 22nd minute opener put United ahead after Barca lost the ball in midfield -- something they rarely did inn either Champions League final. Welbeck played the ball to the Portuguese winger who finished calmly past a current United player -- though probably not for much longer -- Victor Valdes.
Thiago Alcantara justified the hope that surrounded him at the time with a spectacular long-distance equaliser past De Gea after 70 minutes, but Michael Owen won the game for United six minutes later after combining well with Tom Cleverley.
The two sides met a year later in Sweden for another sellout friendly that demonstrated their global appeal. Sadly, though, the game billed as a "Super Match" by promoters and which featured a match trophy delivered to the centre circle by a helicopter-delivered, while Henrik Larsson, Denis Irwin and Sven Goran Eriksson were introduced to the crowd, was anything but super.
Following a goalless draw in which Wayne Rooney missed a penalty, the result was decided by a three-round shootout. Barcelona won after Xavi and ex-Old Trafford defender Gerard Pique scored, while Nani and Ashley Young missed for United.
On Saturday, United target Pedro is expected to line up for Barcelona. It is inconceivable that the 27-year-old forward, who scored the opening goal in the 2011 final, will be allowed to leave Camp Nou before the Spanish and UEFA Super Cup finals.
Barcelona's squad is stretched due to the club's ongoing transfer ban as well as the absence of key players, including Lionel Messi Neymar, who played at Copa America.
For ex-Barcelona manager Louis van Gaal, this latest encounter between two of the world's biggest clubs will provide a benchmark as to how close his United side are to the current European champions.
"Over the last few years they have been probably the best team in Europe and it is down to us to prove we are as good as them," said United captain Rooney before the game. "It is good that tomorrow [Saturday] we will be playing against them and it will show us where we are at."
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.