AUTHOR: – Bricki
With all the stress, nervousness and seriousness in the build up to the Champions League Final Saturday between United and Barca, it seemed like a little light relief was needed to lighten the mood. Here is an alternative look at the classic group games between the teams in the 98/99 campaign in a true heavyweight boxing style.
I hope you enjoy…
98/99 saw a slugfest of clashes between United and Barca in the ‘Group of Death’ which also contained Bayern Munich and Brondby.
In a truly ‘Heavyweight’ group it was the clashes between United (Rocky Balboa), Barca (Apollo Creed) and Bayern (Ivan Drago) that defined the group whilst Brondby (Spider Rico) offered the chance for a couple of easier bouts. The games between United and Barca however produced possibly the games of the group stages.
True to the Rocky theme tune that United walk out to, the opening game at Old Trafford set the tone for what would be two epic encounters that swung one way then the other.
As the teams stood toe to toe at the start the early jabs failed to break through the tight defences of both sides. Then in the 17th minute a ‘right hook’ from Beckham on the left after escaping the tight Barca defence found its way into the heart of Barca and Giggs was there to ‘jab’ the ball past the despairing Barca keeper. The first punch to land and United were on the front foot, jabbing and moving around quickly they looked to land another telling blow. As Barca wobbled United hit another heavy punch, a ball from the right by Solskjaer back to Beckham gave him the chance to open up Barcas defence again with another of his right hooks. Only this time Beckham dropped a shoulder and surprised the Barca backline with a left jab into the box that opened up a gap for a spectacular uppercut of a volley from Dwight Yorke that rocked the Barca keeper and left Paul Scholes with an easy left jab to finish.
Barca were on the ropes now and rocking, they were grateful for the halftime whistle to end the first three rounds of battle. After Louis Van Gaal delivered a half time team talk that Mickey ‘He’s a Wrecking Machine’ Goldmill would have been proud of, Barca came out second half showing the grit and determination of Apollo Creed looking to make inroads into the Man United backline.
Just like Rocky himself, defense was not what this United side were about and they were liable to take a few hits in the course of throwing their own Haymakers. It took only a few minutes after the restart for Barca to land their first telling blow to United. After throwing a few jabs to the heart of the United backline, Sonny Anderson found a gap to lash a straight left past Schmeichel and knock the reds off balance.
Now on the front foot it was Barca probing and looking for the gaps, slowly gaining more control of the contest. On the hour mark they managed to put United on the ropes and struggling to stay on their feet. A quick jab from the right by Luis Enrique opened up a small gap on the right side of Uniteds tight backline. As Rivaldo looked to exploit the gap he was caught by a hit below the belt from Jaap Stam, this resulted in a penalty against United which Giovanni dispatched to leave the bout level on points and both sides now showing signs of damage and tiredness.
The occasion was starting to affect the way that United were playing and they were coming under increasing pressure as Barca looked to move through the gears and searched for a knockout blow. It was United however who shocked Barca with a right hook that left them starring at the canvas and barely making a standing 8 count. A foul in the centre of the Barca half left with United with a free kick 30 yards from the Barcelona goal. Up stepped Beckham, still looking for redemption after his sending off at the World Cup in France the previous summer. He swung his right foot as true as a Rocky right hook and the ball sailed over the organised defence of the Barcelona wall and nestled in the top corner of the net. United had found new reserves of strength and put Barca back on the canvas with the most majestic of shots, as beautiful a motion as you would see on the battleground that was Old Trafford.
United had found a way through again but Barca came storming back and laid blow after blow at the United defence. It seemed inevitable that a telling blow would be hit and so it occured. As Barca found their way into the heart of the United defence they attempted to strike a killer blow. The United backline were blocking everything they could but as the ball looked destined to cross the goal line and put United down again on the canvas disaster struck. In a noble move to try and keep the team fighting, Nicky Butt sacrificed himself on the line by blocking a certain goal with his arm. As a result he was dismissed from the game and Barcelona had another chance via the penalty spot to land a blow on what was now a very wounded United team. Luis Enrique stepped up and delivered a hammer blow to Uniteds hopes of leading the contest after the first 6 rounds with the next set due in the Camp Nou in a few weeks time.
Barca tried to use the man advantage they had to inflict a telling punch or even a knockout on the United team but with the resolve of Rocky Balboa they refused to budge. As the final bell went at Old Trafford both sides touched gloves on what had been an epic bout so far, they returned to their corners to recover and prepare for the next rounds of what had already been a true heavyweight clash.
After patching themselves up and going over there gameplans, the teams met up again at the Camp Nou to see if a winner could be found. Results elsewhere meant that only a Knockout was going to be enough for Barcelona to advance at the expense of United.
This was reflected in the way Barca stormed out of their corner and looked to pummel United early. It was barely a minute into the contest when Barca hit United with a massive blow that sent them sprawlling on the canvas. Several smart jabs worked the ball into the centre of the United defence and Sonny Anderson was there again hit home a telling early strike.
United were rocking and needed to gain some control in the contest, slowly but surely they started to impose themselves down the wings with Blomqvist and Beckham making inroads to the Barca back line. Yorke then managed to find a way through what had so far been a solid Barca rearguard. Picking up the ball out on the left side he darted inside and unleashed a straight low effort through the body of the Barca and levelled things up. As Barca chased the breakthrough they desperately needed in order to remain with a chance of progression in the competition United stood firm, Schmeichel in particular was having a stellar first half including a double save when three Barca players were lining up to put in the rebound.
The bell went to signal half time and it would be United happier to get in the corner and let maybe the greatest cornerman of them all, Sir Alex, work his magic. As the second half began and we entered the last 3 rounds of this epic 12 round battle that began back at Old Trafford it was United who were the more dangerous team.
Just after the 50th minute mark it was the speed and incisive of United that opened up Barca and issued a hammer blow to their hopes of keeping qualification alive. As Keane delivered a straight one deep into the Barca back line the movement and speed of Yorke and Cole opened them wide up. As Yorke first dummied the ball to Cole and then played a fast one-two with him, it left Cole with the easiest of straight finishes to have Barca stumbling around again gasping for air.
Once again though Barcelona summoned the strength to somehow keep fighting and delivered a counter minutes later that left United on the back foot once again. A free kick awarded to the right on the goal around 30 yards out was whipped in with a delicious left hook from Rivaldo. United had misjudged their defence and the hooked shot squeezed in at the back leveling things up.
As the epic bout reached the last round both sides threw the last punches that could bring glorious victory or spectacular defeat. As time ticked down it was United who put together a classy left and right combination that ended with Beckham delivering a long range right into the box and Yorke was there to jab Barca and put them down on the canvas for what could be the final time.
1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8… Somehow Barcelona rose to their feet and stood toe to toe with United. Both sides breathing heavy and drenched in sweat. The crowd roared and the final tussle commenced, Barca needing to knock United down twice in order to take the fight on points. As one team threw a punch and then the other responded it was true heavyweight fare that could go either way, then it happened. Barca delivered a wide left hook into the very face of United and there was Rivaldo to set himself and deliver an uppercut that sent United flying. It was all level again as United received the standing 8 count that Barca themselves had just suffered.
Barca threw all they could at United looking for the killer blow, Rivaldo and Geovanni both looked to land efforts that would have knocked United out cold. Yet United stood strong and repelled all that Barca threw at them.
As the bell rang to end the magnificent bout for the final time the crowd rose as one to acclaim two huge competitors who had given their all over 12 rounds of battle, it would be United however who moved on to win it all back at the Camp Nou. They would take blow after blow against the machine that was Bayern Munich but like Rocky against Ivan Drago they would come back and knock the Germans out at the death.
As the players left the field the belief that they could now take on the heavyweights of Europe gave them renewed optimism and a will to win that would take them all the way to the top…
Next stop… Destiny!