Three epic United nights against Spanish teams

Tuesday 23 November 2021 13:30

Manchester United face Spanish opposition again this evening, when visiting Villarreal for a Champions League group game.

The Reds will head to the Estadio de la Ceramica for what has shaped up to become a crucial match in Group F’s final destiny. United go into it top of the group on seven points after four games but are only ahead of the second-placed hosts due to the head-to-head record, following our 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in September. 

We know that victory will secure one of the top two spots and our progression to the round of 16, but anything else would leave work to do on matchday six, as well as opening the door to Atalanta and Young Boys in third and fourth place respectively. So, ahead of another important meeting with a side from Spain, we’ve looked back at some of our most inspired evenings against their countrymen...


No-one has ever taken a longer journey to a European Cup final. No-one has overcome more to earn a chance to conquer the continent. First there was the otherworldly despair of Munich. Then the long and lean years of reconstruction. By 1968, Matt Busby and the club’s story had acquired an emotional context of almost unbearable weight.
Sir Matt Busby gets a feel for the Bernabeu Stadium ahead of the '68 semi-final.
How fitting then, that the moment United reached that first final came at the Bernabeu – the home of European kings and six-time winners Real Madrid – in front of an astonishing 125,000 fans. After all Busby, Charlton, Foulkes and co had been through, maybe they deserved a kinder route to redemptive glory, but that wouldn’t really have fit the story’s epic narrative. When the final whistle went in the Spanish capital, with United 4-3 ahead on aggregate, there was both relief and disbelief. Busby would get his shot at immortality after all, and United would at last have the chance to finish the job the Babes started when they bravely first set out to tame Europe in 1956.

‘The closing seconds seemed an eternity,’ wrote the peerless Times football correspondent Geoffrey Green, ‘with 21 players in the Manchester half, and Real Madrid battering their heads against a red wall to save themselves.’ The end came when Italian referee Antonio Sbardella bent down and simply picked the ball up, halting one final attacking attempt by Madrid. Silence. The giant crowd had seemed ‘like a sheer, granite cliff of sound that was falling about United’s ears’ in the first half, according to Green, when Real had swept to a commanding 3-1 lead on the night. But now it was quelled. Within the blink of an eye, handfuls of the few hundred Reds that had made the trip to Spain burst on to the field, mobbing their heroes in a touching scene of fan and player communion.

For Bobby Charlton, out on his feet with dehydration due to the extreme, humid conditions, it was nothing short of the moment United took the decisive step to winning the club’s first European Cup. ‘When the final whistle went, I fell to the turf,’ he would later write. ‘I couldn’t muster the energy to kiss it, but I did think, at a moment that I would never forget, “It’s ours now – we are going to win the European Cup.”’

When United lifted the Champions League in 1999, all associated hoped it would be the start of an era of European dominance. Sadly that didn’t quite materialise but, in 2008, 50 years after Munich and 40 years after Wembley 1968, United would at last ascend to the continent’s showpiece final again.

Without the injured Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic, but inspired by Paul Scholes’s magic goal, legendary performances by Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown, and a determined, euphoric Old Trafford crowd, the Reds ensured Messi, Xavi and Iniesta left M16 goalless, after a remarkably tense night. As the game entered its dying stages, the Red Army sensed one final lift was needed, and Old Trafford rose to its feet, en masse, submerging Barça’s desperate last attacks in a sea of noise and colour. ‘Viva Ronaldo!’ they sang, endlessly, twirling their red-and-white bar scarves above their heads.

Nine years after the Nou Camp, both players and fans alike simply refused to be denied any longer, on one of the stadium’s greatest nights. Full speed ahead, Moscow.
Watch action from both legs of the 2008 semi-final against Barcelona.


After 23 years in the European wilderness, this was the night Alex Ferguson first hoisted United back towards a rightful place at football’s top table. Standing in their way were Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’, just a year away from lifting their club’s first-ever European Cup. But Koeman and co were no match for the Reds on a wet and wild night in Rotterdam, where two Mark Hughes finishes – the second being one of the all-time great United goals – powered us home.

“When we saw the fans inside the stadium, we knew it was going to be our night,” Mick Phelan would later say.

The loyal Red Army had waited too long to allow a chance like the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final to slip by. 

See how Hughes and co beat Barcelona to win the Cup Winners' Cup in 1991.
In the final seconds, you can see it all: Denis Irwin larruping the ball clear and running off jubilantly as the referee’s whistle sounds; Ferguson and his coaching staff locked in a tight, cathartic embrace.

“It’s magnificent – look at that!” said the boss afterwards, pointing to riotous scenes of euphoria in the rain-soaked stands. “This is what Manchester United’s about.”

As the players lifted the trophy, one by one, to delirious cheers, you could see all the stress and expectation leaving their bodies. The Ferguson era was well and truly up and running. The years of plenty had only just started.