When Man Utd went to Turin and beat Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi, you had to admire them. No really, you did. Well, Cris Freddi did anyway

In the last minute of the first leg at Old Trafford, Un­ited’s chances of reaching the European Cup final for the first time since 1968 seemed just about over. With Zinedine Zidane paralysing them in midfield, Juventus might have led by more than 1-0. Then an injury-time goal by Ryan Giggs snatched a draw, but still left an Alp to climb. History didn’t help. United hadn’t won any of their seven previous matches in Italy, losing all four in Turin – and Juve hadn’t lost at home to an Eng­lish club since Paul Vaessen’s unlikely winner for Ars­enal in 1980. After ten minutes Juventus led 2-0 and you could have named your own odds.

But there were reasons to be cautious about counting chickens. United hadn’t lost in their previous 24 games, and although Jaap Stam’s deflection was sim­ilar to the goal conceded against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final a week earlier, United had gone on to win that match. And although Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole hadn’t scored for more than a month, they’d hit 47 in the season so far – and Ferguson had rested them for the previous two matches, hoping to do something about their appetite.

That duly came to pass, but only after Roy Keane had started rolling his sleeves up. Halfway through the first half, he headed in David Beckham’s corner – and Juve’s alarm bells were already ringing, partly because United’s formation was holding. Before the match, the Italian press had welcomed an injury to Giggs. During it, they came to the conclusion that Jesper Blomqvist covered the left flank better, and that Ferguson was right to leave out Paul Scholes in favour of Nicky Butt, who helped Keane take a grip in the middle. No one was particularly surprised when Cole crossed to the far post and Yorke got ahead of Ciro Ferrara to head his 27th goal of the season.

As the game wore on, you doubted Juve’s ability to claw it back, even though Filippo Inzaghi came close time and again. With the score still 2-1, Peter Schmeichel made a mess of coming for Zidane’s cross, and Inzaghi’s looping header was headed off the line by Stam. Either side of half-time, Inzaghi forced important saves from Schmeichel, then had a goal disallowed for offside and might have had a penalty under a beefy challenge by Stam.

But the point is that United were creating chances too. At Old Trafford, Peruzzi hadn’t had to make a save in the first hour. Here Yorke shot over after 18 minutes and even the Turin press agreed he should have had a penalty when Ferrara tackled him five mintues later. Soon after half-time Beckham’s perfect pass gave Cole a golden chance, but either he was let down by his con­trol or he didn’t trust his left foot.

All over the pitch, Juventus were coming apart at the seams. Defence, midfield and attack were too far away from each other, their pressing game disintegrated and they started resorting to the long ball. Early on, Stam and Ronny Johnsen had “looked horribly vulnerable to the pace of Inzaghi”, but they were much happier under the desperate high crosses that began to rain down. A real role reversal and throwback: like watching an English club team in Europe in the early Seventies.

Zidane was close-marked rather than man-marked, but marked out of it all the same, Ferguson having learned his lesson from the first leg. The Frenchman was too good to disappear completely (the Guardian referred to his “peerless display”) but he was un­questionably marginalised, looking for space on the wings, where he did little.

At the back, Juve missed their in­jured Uruguayan “radar”, Paolo Mon­tero, but when they finally had to bring him on, it was his mistake that led to Yorke breaking through. Angelo Per­uzzi brought him down but the referee play­ed advantage and Cole put in the loose ball. But even before that, the Italians weren’t be­grudging United’s right to go through.

The significance of the match in the scheme of things? The relative decline of an all-conquering team, perhaps, or even a nation. Juventus had reached all of the previous three European Cup finals, but no Italian club has done so since – or won any of the last five Eur­opean trophies. But it’s got to be more specific than that. According to Zidane himself, Juventus hadn’t been playing as well as in recent seasons, despite hav­ing “that bit of luck recently with Ancelotti that we didn’t have with Lippi”. And ZZ himself has a habit of disappearing in the big matches (two European Cup finals, the final of Euro 2000, and even the final of France 98, despite his two freak headers). At Old Traf­ford, he’d “worn the trousers” according to La Stampa. But in the second leg, he and Ferrara were “the naked kings”.

This was the result of United’s key men getting it right on the night. An Italian paper described Ferguson as “not a great manipulator of brains” (tell Kevin Keegan that) but he was at it before the match, reminding the referee that he’d disallowed two goals when United played Borussia Dortmund two years earlier. And you couldn’t fault his team selection.

At Old Trafford, Juve had rocked United’s main attacking platform by limiting the number of crosses “il Spice boy” had sent in. Here Beckham was influential again, second only to the “straordinario” Keane, who won the midfield war. His foul on Zidane earned him a yellow card that kept him out the final, but it was the kind of fighting spirit United needed.

Afterwards, Juve’s manager Carlo Ancelotti made the noises you would expect: we scored our goals too ear­ly, we lost the winning mentality. At 2-0, said In­zaghi, we thought counter-attacks would be enough. But this was more about the winners than the losers. On one of his previous visits, Ferguson had stood in the tunnel before kick-off and thought “the Juventus players made ours look small”. Here United walked taller. They didn’t turn the other cheek, said the Italian press, they show­ed nerves of steel. Sometimes cliches tell it like it is.

The following month, when Ferguson did get his selection wrong, United were hilariously lucky to win the final (it was played on what would have been Matt Busby’s 90th birthday, so maybe somebody up there had a word) but they thoroughly deserved their place in it after one of the most impressive, mentally toughest comebacks by a British team in Europe. The only thing Juventus got out of it was the autographed photo of his wife’s band that Beckham gave to Angelo Di Livio. For his daughter, he said.

From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month

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