Five great Old Trafford European nights

Tuesday 21 February 2023 09:49

Manchester United’s recent 2-2 draw with Barcelona was enthralling from start to finish, and Thursday’s Europa League play-off second leg at Old Trafford evokes memories of great European clashes from years gone by.

Few occasions can match the buzz and anticipation of two elite sides clashing in winner-takes-all cup competition. United have served up many classic displays in front of our fans during the years, so we couldn’t let the opportunity pass by without recapping five favourites.

Here’s the rundown of our top five greatest European nights at Old Trafford from the year 2000 onwards… 


United: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra (c); Welbeck, Giggs, Carrick, Valencia; Rooney, Van Persie.

We had it all to do after a miserable 2-0 defeat during the first leg in Greece, but the Old Trafford support can be called upon to thrust the team forwards in difficult moments, and thrust they did.

It was an evening of two special performances. Robin van Persie’s hat-trick, including a brilliant free-kick for his third, fired United beyond an Olympiacos side who played with zero fear after their first-leg win. 

But Van Persie’s treble would have meant very little without the heroics of David De Gea. The Spaniard’s double-save led to Van Persie netting his second just before half-time, a major boost at a crucial time in the tie. First, De Gea saved with his knee, then seconds later he recovered to make another save with his right foot. It proved pivotal.

RVP's final United hat-trick Video

RVP's final United hat-trick

Robin van Persie netted his third and final Reds hat-trick against Olympiacos in 2014. What a player...


United: Van der Sar; O'Shea, Brown, Heinze, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes; Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs (c).

This five-goal thriller was one of those nights where the Old Trafford faithful were treated to a classic display from a visiting player. We had to do everything in our power to halt Kaka, whose pace, incisiveness and control on the ball saw him net a brilliant brace.

But our firepower also stepped up. Cristiano Ronaldo’s header gave the Reds the lead before Kaka’s double gave Milan a half-time advantage. We piled on the pressure after the break, and for all of Kaka’s efforts, it was two goals from Wayne Rooney that would secure the first-leg win.

Rooney latched onto an audacious Paul Scholes lob to make it 2-2; a move that bypassed Milan’s entire defence in a moment of genius. The winner was classic Rooney, as he somehow blasted beyond Dida from a Ryan Giggs pass that looked like it was behind him.


United: Barthez; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O’Shea;  Keane (c), Butt, Veron; Solskjaer, Van Nistelrooy, Giggs.

If we’re going to speak about memorable opposition performances, it would be a disservice to let this article pass without mention of Ronaldo for Real Madrid. The Brazilian earned the respect of everyone attending Old Trafford that night with a ruthless hat-trick in a back-and-forth game that eventually saw us beat the superstar-laden Galacticos.

Although it wasn’t enough to see us through on aggregate, United fans had plenty to enjoy. Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised for 1-1, while an Ivan Helguera own goal and David Beckham double secured the win. 

Beckham only entered the pitch with little over 20 minutes to go; enough time to whip home a trademark free-kick in what would turn out to be his final European appearance for the club.

Classic Match: United 7 Roma 1 Video

Classic Match: United 7 Roma 1

The seven-goal demolition of Roma has to go down as one of our very best nights in Europe…


United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Carrick, Giggs (c); Rooney, Smith.

It’s easy to forget we were 2-1 down going into this match, after a first-leg loss in Rome. This was a night where everything went right and the fundamentals of Sir Alex Ferguson’s attacking philosophy tore the Italians to shreds.

Michael Carrick’s banger started the rout, as he strolled onto Ronaldo’s pass and looped a teasing effort over Doni from outside the box, leaving the Roma stopper stranded with no chance. Alan Smith then ended an Old Trafford drought that stretched back to 2004 with the second, putting United ahead on aggregate.

Rooney made it 3-0 on 19 minutes, before Ronaldo’s double either side of half-time gave the visitors zero chance of getting back in it. Carrick’s second was even better than his first; a rocket from outside the area that just kept rising until it met the top corner. 

Francesco Totti did assist a brilliant Daniele De Rossi strike to reduce the deficit, but United finished on a high with Patrice Evra rifling home from distance. A breathtaking display from the Reds.

Red Rivalries: Barcelona Video

Red Rivalries: Barcelona

Red Rivalries | Watch the story of our European clashes against the Catalan giants FC Barcelona...


United: Van der Sar; Hargreaves, Ferdinand (c), Brown, Evra; Park, Scholes, Carrick; Nani, Ronaldo, Tevez.

You didn’t think we could let the hype around the Barcelona showdown pass without naming this number one, did you? 

It wasn’t a game of many goals, but make no mistake about it, Paul Scholes’s brilliant long-ranger ranks among the most important strikes in United history. The way the ball bobbled just before the midfielder let loose was perfect, giving Scholes the platform to smash us into our first Champions League final for nine years, and of course, eventually going on to beat Chelsea in the 2008 final.

A Barcelona team including Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi were not there to back down, though, resulting in a fascinating battle of tension and nerve. United were roared on by the Old Trafford crowd, a vital boost in a tie that flaunted so many potential match-winners across the pitch for both sides.

The same intensity will be needed in Thursday’s meet with Barca, who are flying in La Liga and now face the tremendous M16 atmosphere under the floodlights on a momentous European night. Is there anything better?