30 March ~ Bayern Munich hosting Manchester United should be one of the most desired match-ups for connoisseurs of European football. They are both perceived around the world as the flagship clubs for their respective leagues and between them share seven European Cup titles. Everyone knows they also shared three of the most famous minutes in European Cup history, but strangely there's no real sense of rivalry.
That lack of an edge was a product of the mutual respect between Alex Ferguson and Ottmar Hitzfeld, who was Bayern coach during all seven previous competitive meetings between the two sides. That the two men liked to share a post-game bottle of plonk is well-documented and was all very nice, but seemed to fit in rather too cozily with group games that ended in toothless draws.
The first time the teams met was in the group phase of the 1998-99 competition, when they both edged out Barcelona thanks to Bayern's double victory over the Catalans (Bayern possibly came to regret that if they'd lost one of those games, they could well have eliminated United from the competition). The first game in Munich was a 2-2 draw thanks to a late Teddy Sheringham own goal, while the return game was a meaningless 1-1 dead rubber with both teams already through. The final that year we know about, although the incredible climax has naturally overshadowed the mediocre 90 minutes that preceded United's goals in "Tyldesley time". It's notable too that this is the only time that United have beaten Bayern – gloriously, but fortuitously, gawping and grinning like incredulous schoolboys told that double maths has been cancelled for a trip to Wembley instead.
Curiously, this result engendered little acrimony between the two teams. When they met at the competition's quarter-final stage two years later, the German press did their best to label it a grudge match. Yet for revenge to be sweet, your opponent has to put up a fight. United were so tame over the two games that you could almost sense them handing the Germans the tie as a conciliatory "get well" gift for the 1999 final. Bayern deservedly won 1-0 at Old Trafford, with Steffen Effenberg dominating and David Beckham only managing to get himself suspended for the second leg. By the time Ryan Giggs scored a consolation goal in the Olympic Stadium, Bayern were 3-1 ahead on aggregate. In David Peace's Fergie – The Novel this game will be followed by a scene where the United manager gets merrily blitzed with Hitzfeld on a case of Pinot Noir while hiding Uli Hoeness's stapler in a filing cabinet.
That just leaves the two games from the 2001-02 season, during that dreary phase when we were compelled to sit through not one, but two group stages of the Champions League. The pair played a predictable 1-1 draw in the group's opening game in Munich and before meeting again on match day five had both taken care of Boavista and Nantes, so could sit back and relax for a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. The only plus point was that this sort of game surely helped persuade UEFA to bring in knockout ties for the final 16.
Can we expect any better this year? Hitzfeld's been and gone again since but Bayern's philosophy is not greatly changed, based around a physical, direct style that makes limited allowance for flair on the flanks through Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, two players whose runs and goals sporadically transform the team from adept journeymen to world-class eye candy. The Dutch international, though, could well be out with a calf injury sustained during the weekend's defeat at home to Stuttgart. That was Bayern's second league loss in a week, sandwiching a grim extra-time win over Schalke in the German Cup semi-final. Captain Mark van Bommel says that against United a goalless draw would be "not bad", while defender Phillip Lahm will also just be happy not to concede a home goal. So don't expect the Bavarians to come out bursting out of the tunnel like sailors on shore leave.
United, meanwhile, are now so seasoned at grinding out road results in Europe that they haven't lost away from home since falling to Milan at the semi-final stage almost three years ago. Even though the German football media are focused this week on the retention of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs from the 1999 squad, the days of a decade ago are long gone, when United would brazenly aim to score more times than their opponents had outwitted Jaap Stam. This ought to be a glamour tie but the odds are in favour of a stereotypically cagey European first leg when the teams do little more than size each other up and hope to seize on an error. It would be fine to be proven wrong but these two teams have history. The official history is that they are European giants but in reality they've yet to deliver anything close to a classic. Ian Plenderleith