Manchester United travel to Italy to face Juventus in the Champions League following a comeback win at Bournemouth on Saturday. Jose Mourinho’s men are making a habit of winning from behind, but nothing achieved in recent months can compare to fightbacks during the treble season some 20 years ago and, in particular, events in Turin on the night of April 21, 1999.
Against a team considered the best on the planet — the Juventus of Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps and Alessandro Del Piero — United recovered from falling two goals behind inside 11 minutes to win 3-2 and reach the Champions League final.
The club’s best-ever performance featured the greatest display of Roy Keane’s career but, after being booked for a foul on Zidane, United’s captain would be suspended for the finals vs. Bayern Munich. In an otherwise celebratory environment after the game, he let rip at teammate Jesper Blomqvist for playing a pass he did not deem good enough.
“Roy was really shouting at me,” Blomqvist said. “He was so angry and saying, ‘it’s your f—–g fault that I’m going to miss the final. I think he’s still mad at me! Mine wasn’t even a bad ball to him. That was the way he worked. Things were never his fault. I didn’t care much for that type of attitude. He went on about it for weeks and it became a bit of a joke in the dressing room.”
“Juventus are the best team I’ve ever played against,” Keane told me four years after that night in Turin. “They battered us at Old Trafford in the first leg. [Ryan Giggs] scored in the last minute, but we should have been 2-0 down at half-time.”
In the second leg, a Filippo Inzaghi brace showed why Juventus were favourites to reach the final, but first-half goals from Keane and Dwight Yorke drew United level in the match and put them ahead on away goals in the tie.
“[Sir Alex Ferguson] was totally calm at half-time,” Andy Cole said. “It was like he was reading it from a book and really inspiring. He said, ‘get another goal and we’ll win this game.’ He had faith in us and he was right. We went out and battered them, steamrollered them, absolutely battered them.
“It could have been more than 3-2 because we pulverised them in the second half,” Cole continued. “I got the winner five or six minutes before the end and loved celebrating with the travelling fans — 5,000 of them — after that famous win, but that night was about others.”
Ferguson’s half-time rhetoric was a continuation of the way he had approached the game.
“He told us that Juventus were a great team, but that they didn’t have the players we did,” Blomqvist said. “He was talking about Davids, Zidane, Del Piero and Inzaghi! Ferguson really believed in our team, even though he exaggerated a little. That was him at his best.”
“The manager said [of Zidane], ‘He’s getting to 30 now, get about him, he’s not what he was,'” Nicky Butt said. “Well, I couldn’t get the ball off him. He’s not even that big, but he was so strong. I swear he had glue on his boot. I would make a tackle and think that I’d won the ball and he’d keep it. I wasn’t in awe of Zidane like I was with Eric (Cantona), but I did think, ‘wow, what a talented player.'”
However, despite Zidane’s stellar talent, another midfielder outplayed him on the night.
“Keaney’s best-ever performance came in the semifinal against Juventus away,” said Butt, who is a close friend of his former captain. “After he was booked he knew that he would miss the final, but he played for the team. He got a thing in his head to carry the team.
“I know exactly how he felt as in 2002 I was booked in the semifinal against Bayer Leverkusen,” Butt added. “We didn’t go through in the end, but I would have missed the final. [Paul Scholes] was also booked in Turin. He got another chance to play in a European Cup final. Roy never did.”
Cole said Keane was “awesome” and “mind-boggling” but the Irish midfielder, who was awarded a rare 8/10 by the notoriously hard-to-please Gazetta Dello Sport, was uncomfortable with such praise.
“I don’t necessarily think that it was my best game but people have since jumped on the bandwagon and said that I scored and got booked and all that,” Keane said. “But I suppose if you look at the game, the fact that we were 2-0 down and the opposition you might see it differently.”
“It was proper rowdy on the plane home,” Cole said. “Everyone was buzzing and having a drink. Juventus are a proper football club and we’d just smashed them everywhere, physically and tactically. I’m sure the Juventus players thought we were on something.”
It was a role reversal from just three years earlier when, in the 1996-97 group stage, United were comprehensively beaten home and away by eventual finalists Juventus.
“[Alen] Boksic, [Christian] Vieri and Zidane were up front,” Gary Neville said. “I thought, ‘what on earth am I doing out here?’ We were nowhere near their level. The only other time I felt like that was at Camp Nou in 1994. I was on the bench when [Barcelona] had [Hristo] Stoichkov and Romario up front. For the only time in my life, I was thinking, ‘I do not want to go out there on that pitch, there’s no way I’m ready for this.'”
The 1-0 score in each game did not reflect Juventus’ dominance, just as was the case when the sides met at Old Trafford last month. The Italian side will be favourites again on Wednesday but the spirit of ’99 can give United hope.