“And Solskjær has won it!!!”
Twenty-one years on, those five words from commentator Clive Tyldesley still send a shiver for Manchester United fans even today.
The 1999 European Cup Final at Barcelona’s mammoth Nou Camp Stadium between Manchester United and Bayern Munich remains one of football’s most dramatic matches. The German side were chasing their fourth European Cup and hopes of a treble having already captured the Bundesliga and were to face Werder Bremen in their domestic cup. United had two legs in the bag, having won the Premier League and only days earlier beaten Newcastle 2-0 in the FA Cup, but hadn’t featured in European club football’s big decider since their only win in 1968 under Matt Busby and a decade on from the Munich Disaster.
The pair had emerged from the same group after the first stage, Bayern as group winners and United as one of the two runners-up with the best record. The Germans had then dispatched counterparts Kaiserslautern 6-0 on aggregate and then Ukranians Dynamo Kyiv 4-3 in the semi-finals. United had faced Italian opposition at both stages, beating Internazionale 3-1 in the quarters and then seeing off a star-laden Juventus 4-3, firstly after a 92nd minute Ryan Giggs goal equalised the first leg at Old Trafford and then rallying from being two goals down inside eleven minutes in Turin in a game that itself stands as one of as one of the great matches of United folklore.
Bayern manager Ottmar Hitzfeld would start with a fairly predictable lineup, built around the defensive axis of goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, club legend and midfielder-turned-sweeper Lotthar Matthaus and central defenders Thomas Linke and Ghanaian Sammy Kuffour, the only non-German in the XI, with Steffan Effenberg in the engine room and the threats of Mario Basler and Carstern Jancker up front. United’s Alex Ferguson had few such luxuries; both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes had picked up yellow cards in Turin and were suspended, forcing him into a makeshift midfield of Nicky Butt and David Beckham in the centre with Swede Jesper Blomqvist on the left and Ryan Giggs – who’d missed the return leg against Juventus after injuring himself celebrating THAT goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup – unusually on the right. In Keane’s absence goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel would captain the side in his last appearance from United, having earlier announced he’d be leaving the club at season’s end.
In charge of the match would be the instantly recognisable bald-headed and bug-eyed Italian Pierluigi Collini, at the time the world’s best and arguably the best referee of all time.
After the pomp and pageantry, it was Bayern that struck first. Jancker was fouled by Johnsen on the edge of the box and Basler stroked the resulting free kick past the United wall and inside Schmeichel’s left post. Who was at fault was debated, but after just six minutes Bayern had the lead and United were left to play catch up yet again. The rest of the half settled into a pattern, United dominated possession but were unable to breach a stereotypically organised and efficient German defense, and it was Bayern who had the better of the chances on the counter-attack with opportunities falling to Basler, Jancker, Alexander Zinckler and even Matthaus striding forward from the back. But half-time came with the score still 1-0.
The second half continued the theme; United pushing for an equaliser, Bayern for a decisive second goal as Basler, Markus Babbel, and Effenberg all had chances one of which from the latter Schmeichel tipped over the bar. The Big Dane would then be left in no-mans-land by a sumptuous chip from substitute Mehmet Scholl, which would come off the post and back into his grateful arms. With a threadbare bench Ferguson brings on his only two attacking weapons in firstly Teddy Sherringham and then Ole Gunnar Solskjær who both force saves out of Kahn, but there’s also another scare when Jancker’s audacious overhead kick clatters off the crossbar.
And then the fourth official held up the board showing the minutes of injury time to be played – “3”.
Just as he did, United win a corner on the left. On the ITV commentary Tyldesley asked “Can Manchester United score? They always score!”. On the pitch Schmeichel heads up, a last throw of the dice. Beckham’s corner is swung in towards the big Dane who only gets a touch, it bounces off Dwight Yorke, there’s a shanked clearance only as far as Giggs who scuffs a right-footed effort. But it falls to Sherringham who tucks it inside the post. United celebrate their equaliser, the fans in the Nou Camp stands roar, and on the Bayern bench Matthaus – substituted 10 minutes earlier – looks on in disbelief.
30 seconds later United have another corner and again on the left, only this time Schmeichel stays in his penalty area. This time Beckham’s effort is flatter, faster, and on the six-yard box. Sherringham beats his marker to the ball and gets a touch towards goal. Instinctively Solskjær sticks his right foot out, deflecting the ball upwards….. and into the Bayern net.
The Nou Camp erupts. United celebrate. Schmeichel does cartwheels in his penalty area. But Bayern are crestfallen, the glory that was in their grasp just moments before has been snatched away with the enduring image that of Kuffour on his knees sobbing and thumping the turf. Somehow Collina persuades the Bayern players to kick-off again before blowing full-time and the scenes of a minute earlier are repeated.
On the sideline ITV’s Gary Newbon manages to find Ferguson, who utters the now-immortal words “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football, bloody hell.”
Schmeichel and Ferguson would get to lift the massive trophy into the Barcelona sky, completing a historic year and certainly the single greatest campaign in the club’s history; Champions of England, winners of the FA Cup, and champions of Europe.
And no one has done it quite as dramatically.
(Even if supporters of a certain Merseyside club would beg to differ!)
Follow Scott on Twitter