United's top five Champions League curtain-raisers
Manchester United’s 2020/21 UEFA Champions League campaign gets under way a week today (Tuesday), when we travel to the Parc des Princes to take on Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s our 24th season in Europe’s top competition since it was rebranded in the early 1990s – and it could be argued that the Reds have never faced a more difficult opening game.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side will be looking to draw inspiration from the famous 3-1 win in Paris in March 2019, but they may also want to take heed of some of our more entertaining curtain-raisers from seasons past.
Here are our top five openers, starting with our very first group-stage game…
UNITED 4-2 GOTHENBURG, 1994/95
The Reds had actually competed in the 1993/94 tournament as English champions, but were knocked out by Galatasaray on away goals. Drawn alongside the Turkish side again the following year, plus 1992 winners Barcelona, hopes were high ahead of our home game with Gothenburg – seemingly the weakest side in the group. However, the Swedes had a decent level of European pedigree, having won the UEFA Cup twice in the 1980s, and took a surprise lead at Old Trafford through Stefan Pettersson. Ryan Giggs soon equalised, before Andrei Kanchelskis’s rasping drive gave us the lead. But a deflected free-kick virtually straight from the restart put Roger Gustafsson’s side level again and we required further efforts, from Giggs and Lee Sharpe, to eventually take the two points, as it was back then. It was the undoubted high of our first Champions League campaign, with back-to-back defeats in Barcelona and Gothenburg eventually consigning us to early elimination.
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UNITED 3-3 BARCELONA, 1998/99
‘Group of Death’ screamed the headlines after the draw in 1998 pitted us alongside Bayern Munich, old foes Barcelona and Danish side Brondby. The Catalans – managed by Louis van Gaal and packed with Dutch, Brazilian and homegrown talent – were many experts’ pre-season pick to win the competition, but those predictions were made to look foolish in a rampant opening half-hour at the Theatre of Dreams, with Giggs and Paul Scholes netting for United who, unusually for a home game, were clad in all-white. The Spanish champions rallied after the break though, as formality turned to thriller. Sonny Anderson thrashed home from just inside the box, before Giovanni converted from the spot after a Jaap Stam foul on Rivaldo. David Beckham curled in an outrageous free-kick from 25 yards, but further drama was to come. Nicky Butt diverted a goalbound effort away with his hand and was sent off, leaving Luis Enrique to slot home from the spot and complete the scoring in an all-time classic which, of course, would go on to be repeated at the Nou Camp two months later.
UNITED 5-1 ANDERLECHT, 2000/01
United’s Treble-winning side was still largely intact 18 months on, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side put the Belgian champions to the sword in this Group G opener. Andy Cole registered his second Champions League hat-trick for the club, with a murderous first-half header the pick of his goals. Denis Irwin – as he often did – kept cool from the spot and Teddy Sheringham also got in on the action, although the giant Czech forward Jan Koller would pull one back for the Brussels club. That was an early sign that we wouldn’t have things our own way, with defeats in Belgium and to PSV Eindhoven in Holland helping stretch a winless away run in Europe to five games and allowing Anderlecht to clinch top spot.
UNITED 3-2 CELTIC, 2006/07
To put it mildly, United’s 2005/06 Champions League campaign hadn’t been great. We’d won just one of our six group-stage games and ended up bottom of a pool containing Benfica and European rookies Lille and Villarreal. The appetite for success the following year was virtually ravenous then, as Celtic visited Old Trafford for the first time in a competitive game. An expectant Old Trafford certainly got their money’s worth from this 'Battle of Britain' clash, even if all five goals were compressed into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 26-minute spell either side of half-time. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink gave the Glaswegians the lead, before a Louis Saha double – the first from the spot – turned the score on its head. Shunsuke Nakamura curled home a free-kick to make it 2-2 at half-time, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer popped up at the back post two minutes after the interval to win it. Celtic would have their revenge in the reverse fixture – Nakamura again – but United did enough to qualify and would eventually progress to the semi-final.
UNITED 4-2 BAYER LEVERKUSEN, 2013/14
United’s pool (Leverkusen, Real Sociedad and Shakhtar Donetsk) looked tricky on paper after an underwhelming start to the Premier League season, but the formidable striking duo of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie helped us to a convincing three points in this Group A curtain-raiser. Rooney, sporting a black protective headband after a training ground injury, volleyed the Reds ahead, but it wasn’t until Simon Rolfes’s second-half curler that David Moyes’s side really woke up. Van Persie’s overhead kick, Rooney’s 200th for the club and Valencia’s driven finish rendered Omer Toprak’s late goal meaningless and United would go on to easily top the group following another convincing win – 5-0 this time – in Germany.