Despite ending the season in glorious victory, Alex Ferguson’s charges at Manchester United made a difficult start to the 1998/99 campaign. United were narrowly beaten by Arsenal in the English Premier League title race the previous season, and midfielder David Beckham had a memorable summer at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, for all the wrong reasons. Along with this, multi-million pound defender Jaap Stam was taking time to settle into a defence that had 34-year-old Peter Schmeichel behind him, with the Dane to announce his departure from Old Trafford later that year.
The Red Devils were drawn into Group D in the UEFA Champions League, quickly dubbed the ‘Group of Death’, along with Bayern Munich, Danish champions Brondby and Spanish league winners Barcelona. It was the Catalans who came to Old Trafford for the first game of the UEFA Champions League group stages in a memorable match that showcased the very best and worst of Ferguson’s team. It was to be the first step on a journey that would take them to their opponents’ stadium eight months later for a final showdown with fellow Group D side Bayern Munich.
The sides’ previous meeting had been in 1994, when Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ destroyed Ferguson’s side 4-0 at the Camp Nou, but United started brighter on a pleasant Autumn evening at Old Trafford. The Blaugrana were given a warning when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struck the post from a dangerous Ryan Giggs cross in the opening exchanges. The Catalan defence did not heed that threat as Beckham skipped past Sergi on the United right to deliver a trademark cross to Giggs on the far post, and the Welshman nodded past Ruud Hesp.
Playing in an all-white kit reminiscent of Barça’s great rivals Real Madrid, United continued to press and they were two up before the break. The ball was sent wide to the influential Beckham who cut inside and delivered an arching left-footed cross towards Dwight Yorke. The Trinidadian, who had settled well at Old Trafford following a summer move from Aston Villa, attempted a spectacular overhead kick from the cross which Hesp managed to beat away. The ball found itself to Paul Scholes in the six-yard box and the England midfielder lashed home.
Barcelona saw a Luis Figo effort ruled out for offside and Schmeichel made a stunning save to deny Sonny Anderson before the break, but the Brazilian was not to be denied after the interval. Fellow countryman Rivaldo tried to dance through the United defence before the ball broke to the Barça No9, who powered a left-footed drive past Schmeichel.
Louis van Gaal’s men were in the ascendency and, after Rivaldo was felled in the box by Stam, Giovanni converted the spot kick to bring his side level.
Beckham stands tall
United’s No7 stepped up moments later to curl an unstoppable free-kick past Hesp to put his side ahead, in a moment that replicated Beckham’s fantastic effort against Colombia at France 1998.
Beckham was inspired in front of the Old Trafford crowd, after enduring a difficult summer following his red card against Argentina. He attributed his form in games like this Old Trafford classic to Ferguson.
"After [the FIFA World Cup] '98 without the manager I would have found it virtually impossible to cope with the attention I was getting on and off the field,” Beckham explained upon his retirement this year. “For this I will always be grateful to him for his support and protection.”
Beckham’s free-kick just past the hour mark would not be the final significant action of the match, and it was to be Barça who struck last. Luis Enrique danced past Nicky Butt on the Barcelona right before swinging a cross towards Anderson whose looping header beat Schmeichel, but hit the crossbar. In the melee that followed, Rivaldo drove towards goal and Anderson saw a follow-up effort stopped by the outstretched arm of Butt. Figo smashed home but Italian referee Stefano Braschi showed Butt a red card and awarded a penalty to the Catalans. It was to be an unhappy week for Butt, as he was also sent off in United’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal in the Premier League just a few days later.
Luis Enrique stepped up and calmly slotted the ball low to Schmeichel’s right-hand side to silence the 50,000 inside Old Trafford. United clung on in the closing stages for a vital point from a rollercoaster of a match, with Ferguson saying: “I'm quite happy with the result at the end of day because we could have lost."
Remarkably, the return fixture in November at the Camp Nou also saw a 3-3 draw between the sides, with braces for Yorke and Rivaldo. It would be a night at the Camp Nou in May the next year though - against eventual Group D winners Bayern Munich – which would see United dramatically crown their 1998/99 season with their third major trophy of the season.