This article is a part of Sportskeeda’s football series, titled Football’s Greatest Encounters of All Time, and we kick it off with Manchester United‘s awe-inspiring come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the final of UEFA Champions League at the Camp Nou in 1999.
Champions League finals always titillate. There are few other games that generate as much hype and hoopla, buzz and banter, anxiety and agony, excitement and ecstasy (well, you can figure out the rest) as one of the most-watched games in the sporting world.
Even among this creme-de-la-creme of footballing finales, though, only a few games have matched up – and most likely ever will – to Manchester United’s incredible comeback against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
“Without doubt, United is the team of the century – in the last year of the century. Perfect timing – just as it has been all season for Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering heroes.”
- Sports Illustrated Magazine
Both managers announced team sheets that were hampered by injury and suspension. Sir Alex Ferguson was without the services of Paul Scholes and captain Roy Keane, as both were suspended, while Henning Berg was injured. Goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel had announced that he would be leaving Manchester United at the end of the season and was given the captain’s armband in the absence of Keane.
The unavailability of Keane and Scholes saw David Beckham paired with Nicky Butt at the centre of the park. Both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham were on the bench.
Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld had injury woes of his own to contend with. French left-back Bixente Lizarazu and influential Brazilian striker Giovane Elber had both suffered season-ending injuries.
Bayern scored early in the game when Ronny Johnsen fouled Carsten Jancker just outside the United penalty area. Mario Basler curled home an exquisite free kick to give the German side the lead after just six minutes.
United recovered from this bad start, however, and began to dominate possession…to no avail.
In the absence of Keane and Scholes, the industrious running of Beckham was being blunted by the well-organised Munich rearguard. Shots that United did muster were quickly closed down. Bayern, on the other hand, looked lethal on the counter-attack. Steffan Effenberg was playing the role of orchestrator-in-chief to great effect, and he was aided expertly by substitute Mehmet Scholl.
Bayern’s attacks prompted Sir Alex to bring on Sheringham for Jesper Blomqvist in the 67th minute. But attempts on goal continued to elude them.
With nine minutes remaining, Solskjaer entered the fray. Moments after his arrival, he tested Oliver Kahn with a diving header – the closest United had come to scoring all game. At the other end, Jancker missed an opportunity to wrap up the trophy when his overhead kick thudded the crossbar.
With five minutes remaining, both United substitutes registered shots on goal, but neither Sheringham’s volley nor Solskjaer’s header managed to trouble Kahn.
With three minutes of injury time signalled, United won a corner, prompting Schmeichel to come forward. Beckham floated a corner which was hoisted back into a crowded box by Dwight Yorke after Thorsten Fink had cleared.
Ryan Giggs‘s snapshot was weak but fell straight to Sheringham, who needed no invitation to sweep home the equaliser and force extra time. After trailing for so long, the momentum was finally with United. The goal was timed at 90:36.
Less than half a minute later, United won a second corner. Beckham took it again, Sheringham headed it downwards and Solskjaer stabbed home what surely had to be the winner.
The goal was timed at 92:17.
Solskjaer celebrated by sliding to his knees in an imitation of Basler’s earlier celebration, which now seemed so far away. Outside the United technical area, he was mobbed by the club’s staff, manager and bench. Schmeichel was cartwheeling in his own area.
Bayern Munich could not have looked a bigger contrast. Those two sucker-punches from United had knocked the wind out of the Bavarians. Several players sunk to the ground with only seconds remaining in the game, in disbelief that they had come so close to winning the Champions League but were still so far from it, despite leading for a vast majority of the game. In the end, they were helped up by referee Pierluigi Collina.
Ghanaian defender Samuel Kuffour sank to the pitch, pounding it in agony with his fist, tears streaming down his face. 6’4″ Jancker, so often the epitome of calm, lay collapsed on the ground.
No one knew what this felt like any more than Lothar Matthaus. The defender had captained Bayern to another Champions League final against Porto in 1987, but two late goals had undone them on that occasion as well. Here, he had been taken off with ten minutes remaining, in anticipation that the trophy was going to Munich.
“What must Lothar Matthäus be thinking…well, with the greatest respect, who cares?”
- Clive Tyldesley, British Football commentator
That substitution epitomised what a large portion of people watching that game thought. Several celebratory flares had already been fired by Bayern supporters, and the trophy had already been draped in scarlet ribbons in anticipation for the German side’s triumph.
The game was heralded as a great achievement for Manchester United, and football fans and pundits alike always refer to that team as one of the greatest that ever played at the Theatre of Dreams. With good reason: that triumph in Catalonia capped Sir Alex’s first European treble. United had already secured both the Premier League and the FA Cup, and had become the first English side to be accorded this unique honour.
It was, coincidentally, the day that would have been the 90th birthday of their legendary manager Sir Matt Busby, who won them their first European Cup.
It remains to date one of Manchester United’s most successful seasons. What made it even better was that a large number of players who did win the final were home grown. Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Wesley Brown and Nicky Butt all collected medals. United were also unbeaten in all 13 of their European games, winning six and drawing seven.
Roy Keane was also awarded one, but he pocketed it immediately after it was given to him because he felt he wasn’t worthy of that medal, since he had not played in the final.
Italian referee Pierluigi Collina also said that the game was one of his most memorable:
“I will always remember it for different reasons – first of all, the reaction of the United supporters when they scored their second goal, it was an incredible noise, like a lion’s roar.
“Then, there was the reaction of the Bayern players – their disappointment as they fell down on the pitch after conceding that goal. The contrasting reactions of happiness and sadness, and the sad eyes of Lothar Matthaus when he looked at the trophy – all very unforgettable.”
- Pierluigi Collina, former referee
Bayern Munich were chasing a treble of their own before this game. They had already secured the Bundesliga, but would lose the German Cup final on penalties to Werder Bremen. The UEFA Champions League was the one trophy Lothar Mathaus would never win in his professional career.
Football, bloody hell!
Manchester United: Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Blomqvist (Sheringham 66); Cole (Solskjaer 80), Yorke.
Subs not used: Van Der Gouw, May, P Neville, Brown, Greening.
Bayern Munich: Kahn; Linke; Matthaus (Fink 79); Kuffour; Babbel; Jeremies; Effenberg; Tarnat; Basler (Salihamidzic 88); Jancker; Zickler (Scholl 70).
Sub not used: Dreher, Helmer, Strunz, Daei.