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May 8, 2009

From Robbo v Diego to Ronaldo v Messi

Andres Iniesta's 90th minute goal may have set Chelsea into a furious rage but it seems Barcelona v Manchester United is a highly popular choice for this season's final. Few outside the Stamford Bridge area wanted a repeat of last year's final, and it is hoped that the finalists will again show off the attacking flair that has guided them to Rome.

An anti-climax is a possibility, though the two clubs have shared some classic past encounters.

Season 1983-4: European Cup Winners' Cup Manchester United win 3-2 on aggregate

This now defunct competition was an old-fashioned two-legged knock-out. United, managed by Ron Atkinson, had qualified after winning the FA Cup after a final replay with Brighton and Hove Albion. Barcelona meanwhile, suffering a decade without a Liga title, had won the Copa Del Rey by beating Real Madrid in an unforgettable final. In that game, Diego Maradona had finally begun to look the part under the coaching of compatriot Cesar Luis Menotti.

March 1984 saw a meeting of two clubs both largely confined to cup successes during that era. The first leg took the tie to the Camp Nou where United put up a decent account of themselves but fell to an own-goal from young Scottish defender Graeme Hogg and a late blockbuster from Juan Carlos Rojo.

Back at Old Trafford it seemed United had been handed mountain to climb. Yet on a night still remembered by fans of an evermore August vintage, the roof was very nearly taken off the Stretford End by a United performance matched by the ear-splitting baying from the stands. Bryan Robson, the subject of rumoured bids from Juventus and AC Milan, put Maradona in the shade with the type of lung-bursting and inspirational performance that gave him the monicker "Captain Marvel". First, Robbo threw himself headlong to bravely nod in a Ray Wilkins corner. Five minutes into the second half, Robson seized on a mistake from Javier Urruticoechea in the Barcelona goal to put the tie level.

Robson then played a leading role in the clincher, playing a raking ball out wide to Arthur Albiston. Norman Whiteside headed back across the full-back's ball in and Frank Stapleton was the coolest man in the postcode as he slotted home. Ecstatic scenes on the terraces followed. There was still time for Bernd Schuster to curve a shot inches wide yet the night ended with Robson being carried from the pitch by hordes of fans all exhorting him to stay.

Season 1990-1: European Cup Winners' Cup Final Manchester United win 2-1

Seven years later, Robson was an elder statesman at United, while Maradona had departed Catalunya the summer after his only appearance at Old Trafford. "Big Ron" was long gone too and plain old Alex Ferguson had been given time to start the rebuilding process that had first borne fruit when his team won the FA Cup Final in 1990.

After seeing off the might of Pesci Munkas, Wrexham, Montpelier and Legia Warsaw, Barcelona awaited in Rotterdam, coached by Johan Cruyff and freshly crowned the champions of Spain. This was English clubs' first season back in European competition after the Heysel ban and United fans travelled to Holland in hope rather than expectation, many choosing to partake in the liberal delights on offer in the Netherlands.

Ferguson set out to contain, even placing striker Brian McClair as a man-marker on Ronald Koeman, Barca's influential sweeper. McClair's partner, meanwhile, had a score to settle. Mark Hughes had suffered an unhappy spell at the Camp Nou before being returned to United. Ever the big-game player, the sturdy Welshman rippled his thighs into action and terrorised his former team-mates.

His first goal came thanks to a Steve Bruce header from a Robson free-kick. Bruce's nod looked to be going in anyway but the Welshman made sure in the 67th minute. Seven minutes later he proved he could score great goals too. Powering on to a long ball, he outpaced the Barca defence, carved past keeper Carles Busquets and from an impossible angle that had TV commentator Brian Moore claiming "maybe not now", he sliced in a shot that soon nestled in the side of the net.

Barca mounted their expected charge and a Koeman free-kick set up a frantic finish. A Bruce mistake almost let in an equaliser before tanned, unsung utility man Clayton Blackmore carved his place in United lore by smashing off the line. Ferguson had picked up his first European silverware as United boss.

Season 1994-5: Champions League Group Stage 2-2 and 4-0 to Barcelona

Three years on and United had ended their league title drought yet an exit the previous season at the unheralded hands of Galatasaray had their European Cup credentials in serious doubt. A second title saw them qualify for the embryonic Champions League, then quaintly made up of league champions only. Barcelona, along with IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray again, made up the quartet.

United again struggled. In truth, they were hampered by the swingeing foreigner regulations imposed at the time. They were allowed to play just three "foreigners", which also included those players from the UK not of English birth. The first game at Old Trafford saw United struggle against Cruyff's "Dream Team". An experiment of playing the pacy Paul Parker at sweeper to deal with Romario failed when the Brazilian equalised a Hughes goal. Jose Maria Bakero put Barca into a deserved lead before Lee Sharpe equalised with a brazen of estimable cheek, back-heeling in a Roy Keane cross.

Having been dealt a fair warning, United's naivety was fully exposed in the return game in Spain. Ferguson took an enforced gamble on dropping Peter Schmeichel for the underused reserve keeper Gary Walsh and lost, big time. Walsh was not helped by some horrible defending as Hristo Stoichkov scored twice while Romario and Albert Ferrer grabbed the others on a night that had United fans reaching for the Spanish brandy in shame.

Season 1998-9: Champions League Stage 3-3 and 3-3

The summer of 1998 was a watershed time for Manchester United. Not only had they been unseated from the Premiership title, they were also the subject of a massive takeover bid by BSkyB. In amongst the intrigue of due diligence and monopolies there was actually football to be played. These twin encounters were the game at its thrilling best. Both were classics.

The first encounter took place in Manchester and United set off at a rattling pace, Ryan Giggs scoring a great header from a David Beckham cross. Scholes soon had a second, seizing on confusion in the Barca ranks. Sonny Anderson's goal after half-time signalled a breathless half in which Beckham, in the process of rehabilitating himself after that sending off in the previous summer's World Cup, scored a tremendous free-kick. That had put United back in the lead after a goal from Giovanni had levelled matters. Barca passed United to death from then on until Nicky Butt was adjudged to have handled a goal-bound shot and sent off. Luis Enrique converted the penalty that signalled two points lost for United.

Two months later, United were beginning to hit the stride that would eventually carry them to a Treble. Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole showed off a telepathic partnership borne of a friendship that had seen them share laughs, nights out and much more beside by grabbing three goals between them for United. Yorke, signed in August, scored a long-ranger and a header from a Beckham cross. That came either side of a thrilling exchange with Cole that resulted in the England striker smashing home. That put United 2-1 up but there was another man in form on the field.

Rivaldo was playing at his irresistible best, cancelling out Cole's goal with a free-kick which bedevilled a visibly angry Schmeichel. Then, after Yorke's second, the Brazilian controlled a Sergi cross and bicycle-kicked in the sixth goal of the match. He was to be denied a hat-trick when his thumping shot smashed off the crossbar. For either of the teams to win would have been an injustice. United would enjoy victory at the Camp Nou later that season.

Season 2007-8 Champions League semi-final United win 1-0 on aggregate

Just under a decade on, the pair met up again in a far more tactical affair. Ferguson had abandoned gung-ho in favour of a tactical approach. Barcelona meanwhile, were in the final straight of Frank Rijaard's tenure at the Camp Nou with plenty of evidence that the team that had won the competition in 2006 was going stale. Ronaldinho was absent through injury, largely unmourned after a lack of form and fitness. The tie was billed as Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi.

Both fluffed their lines. Ronaldo missed a penalty in the third minute of the tie while Messi played at half-pace with his injured thigh heavily strapped. Having gone so close to scoring, United then played as if they had decided to abandon attack altogether. Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park played almost as auxiliary full-backs as Barca made waves of attacks that never really convinced of their potency.

The tie went to Manchester on a knife-edge and it was a veteran of the 1998 meetings who proved the assassin. Paul Scholes had previously not scored all season but that was forgotten when he lashed in an exocet missile of a strike that rolled back the years and tears down the cheeks of United fans; Scholes had missed the 1999 final through suspension.

The rest of the game followed the pattern of the first leg but United held strong, if extremely nervously. Tension was the order of the night and Mancunian hearts were treated to many a flutter before the final whistle eventually sounded. United were heading to Moscow.

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