Amid an undulating, confused atmosphere at Old Trafford, United crept into the quarter-finals of the Champions League by virtue of a curious draw with Bayern Munich.
For Alex Ferguson, the tie would pit him against a familiar foe, Ottmar Hitzfeld. The German had ousted United at the semi-final stage two years earlier with Borussia Dortmund, and whereas popular wisdom suggested that the difference in 1997 had been the Reds’ profligate finishing, ahead of his return to Old Trafford Hitzfeld suggested that obsession had proved United’s undoing.
“I felt in that game that United were too nervous, that somehow they were too keen to win the trophy,” he proffered, at his pre-match press conference.
“That was why we won.
“They were the favourites and everybody expected them to beat us and win the final so I can understand the real disappointment for Ferguson. I know it is something that burns away inside him still.
”In any game like that, it’s a question of the nerve of the players. For whatever reason – maybe because Ferguson wanted it too much and expressed that feeling – his side were too inhibited. That allowed us to impose our game on them in a way which we could not have done if they had been more natural.”
In the opening five group games of 1998/99, United’s play had been entirely uninhibited, with caution permanently thrown to the wind.
It had yielded only two wins over Brondby, while leads had been squandered against Barcelona twice, plus Bayern in Bavaria, but the Reds’ attacking instincts had captured the imagination of many onlookers and peers around European football.
Prophetically, Bayern poster boy Stefan Effenberg opined ahead of the game:
“The best thing would be if both of us went through, then we could meet in the final.”
And so it transpired, ending up a curious 1-1 draw in which the final stages were played at a pedestrian pace when it became clear that both sides were in line to qualify; Bayern as group winners, United as a the competitions second-best runners-up behind Real Madrid.
“The Munich players were coming up to my team and telling them just to keep the ball in the final few minutes,”revealed Ferguson.
“In fact, I was aware ten minutes before the end that as things stood we were through. It was the Germans who were telling us. They always have very good lines of communication. They never got things like that wrong.”
Though United had squeaked in as the eighty qualifiers for the quarter-finals, skipper Keane was in no doubt about how far his side could go, insisting:
“There’s a belief now in the whole camp that we can get through. It’s our third season of qualification for the latter stages and that’s a great achievement for the club. But quarter-finals and semi-finals are no good. You want to be winning trophies, especially the European Cup. We’re now capable of going on to win it.
“We hope we have come through a period of learning. We know we conceded too many goals looking at the group. We know we have to cut that out, but that’s probably being over-critical of the team. We really wanted to go for a win against Bayern, but the experience of the last few years has told us that a goal was enough.
“Now everyone keeps asking us if we are a better squad than the one from two years ago which won the Double. I think honestly, yes we are. We do have a strong squad. Maybe going back to the Double-winning side, it was a better 11. But to do well in Europe and the Premiership you need a better squad, which we have. We have a European mentality now.
”We’re better equipped than previous teams. There are a lot of quality teams left, but hopefully a few of them will want to avoid us. We struggled a few years ago to get to the final stages. Now we’re through and any of the eight teams left are capable of winning it. And we’re one of them.”
United 1 Bayern 1 Gallery
Here are 20 images from a tense but successful night at Old Trafford in December 1998.
The remaining six qualifiers all posed pitfalls. Holders Real Madrid, semi-finalists Juventus, tournament favourites Internazionale, plus dark horses Dynamo Kiev, Kaiserslautern and Olympiakos all awaited. Imagine the doom-mongering on Fleet Street, then, when the Reds were paired with Inter, replete with the talents of Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and Diego Simeone, the latter still a hot topic in English football for the histrionic role in David Beckham’s World Cup dismissal.
The Argentine midfielder was quick to align himself with Beckham, who had been subjected to icy receptions at away grounds all over England ever since the vents of St Etienne.
“It makes me mad to hear all of these things happening to David,” sniffed Simeone.
“This is the sort of lunch-mob mentality which is not only highly dangerous but totally unfair. I find it incredible. If it would help, I would be prepared to meet him any time anywhere. The past is gone and the present is here. I am going to Manchester to play my football and I think the fans will be fair with me.”
While the Simeone and Beckham reunion would provide an absorbing sub-plot to the tie, United had more consuming short-term goals; firstly picking a way through a tricky festive fixture list.
Wednesday 9 December 1998 | Champions League Group D | Attendance: 54,434
Manchester United 1 (Keane 43)
Bayern Munich 1 (Salihamidzic 56)
United: Schemeichel, Brown, G. Neville, Stam, Irwin (Johnsen 46), Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Yorke (Butt 64), Cole.
Subs not used: van der Gouw, Sheringham, P. Neville, Blomqvist, Berg.
Bayern: Kahn, Matthaus (Linke 61), Babbel, Kuffour, Strunz, Jeremies, Effenberg, Lizarazu, Salihamidzic, Elber (Jancker 81), Zickler (Basler 81).
Subs not used: Scheur, Tarnat, Helmer
Man of the Match: Jaap Stam was at his unflappable best, coping with Bayern’s assorted attributes of pace, power and trickery, and looking every inch a rock at the heart of the Reds’ back line.