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Eric Cantona is tackled against Juventus in 1996.

History can show United the way forward

Thirteen months was all it took for Manchester United to learn from the lesson of Turin ’96 and that has to be the high benchmark for the current Reds.

Tuesday night at Old Trafford evoked many memories of triumphs and tribulations against Juventus in the Champions League.

As chastening as the commanding 1-0 defeat by the Italians was for Jose Mourinho’s side, the same loss by the same scoreline to Marcello Lippi’s Juve 22 years ago was equally humbling for Alex Ferguson’s men. That night at the Stadio Delle Alpi suggested a gulf between the two sides that could take light years to reduce. It turned out to be less than a year before United had closed the chasm and were beating Juventus 3-2 at Old Trafford in a Champions League group thriller.

And it was just two more European campaigns before the Reds were shattering the Old Lady on their own patch in 1999 in that memorable 3-2 triumph in the semi-final on the way to winning the Champions League in Barcelona against Bayern Munich.

“I stood in the tunnel before kick-off and the Juventus players made ours look small,”  Sir Alex recalled after that 1996 setback. Juve were the European Champions having beaten then-holders Ajax on penalties in Rome in the 1996 final. They were THE powerhouse of European football and Ferguson admitted at one point: “Juventus were the model for my Manchester United.”

Jaap Stam in action against Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final, second leg
Jaap Stam helped United win 3-2 on an epic night in Turin back in 1999.

Lippi’s side were giants in the sense of their footballing stature with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Alessandro del Piero sweeping all before them in Serie A and in Europe. United’s Champions League experience was paltry in comparison.

Despite being kings of England with the League and FA Cup double on the CV for the second time in three seasons, the Reds were novices on the elite European stage.

The team that started in Turin in 1996 had just 46 Champions League matches for the Reds behind them. None of the Reds that night had more than nine Champions League matches for United to call on as they were destroyed.

Peter Schmeichel and Gary Pallister had the most appearances while Ronny Johnsen, Karel Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff were making their debuts for United in the competition. They were cut apart in Italy in Juve’s intimidating old stadium. Only an Alen Boksic goal separated the two sides at the end but it was a tormenting night for United and, seriously, it could have been a double-figure scoreline.

The learning curve was steep but United’s squad climbed it like mountain goats.

Only Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelof and Romelu Lukaku have single figure appearances like the ’96 side and Marcus Rashford has just 11. But there is a backbone of experience there with David De Gea, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young for United alone while Paul Pogba has a bucketload of Champions Leagues games from his time at Juve, similarly Nemanja Matic with Benfica and Chelsea, plus Juan Mata with Valencia and Chelsea.

It is only a matter of a couple of weeks before United get a shot at proving how much has been learned from the Old Trafford loss when visiting the Juventus Stadium in Turin on November 7. It might be too early to make great strides but the opportunity is there to prove United can ultimately match the response Ferguson’s side delivered after their harsh Juventus tutorial.

It is a history lesson Mourinho’s current side can learn from as they contemplate the bruising they took on Tuesday night. United’s starting XI against Juventus on Tuesday night have far more Euro savvy than Sir Alex’s team had over two decades ago. Okay, they are not the current Premier League Champions so are starting further behind on the grid than their predecessors. However, between them, those who began the match on Tuesday evening at Old Trafford have almost 200 Champions League appearances between them.

Paul Pogba brushes Ronaldo aside.
Paul Pogba has played in the Champions League for both United and Tuesday's opponents.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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