By Jonathan Wilson
May 28, 2011

A look at memorable previous meetings between Manchester United and Barcelona:

European Cup-Winners' Cup quarterfinal second legOld Trafford, Manchester, March 21, 1984

There was a time when Bryan Robson seemed to win games by force of will, but he never so decisively waylaid destiny and sent it packing down a different path than he did in United's first meeting with Barca. Few gave them much hope of turning round the 2-0 lead Barcelona had established through Rojo's last minute goal in the first leg. Old Trafford, though, was heaving, and the 58,000 packed inside sensed blood from the first minute, when Urruti flapped at a Ray Wilkins cross and Norman Whiteside improvised a looping volley that fell on the top of the crossbar with the goalkeeper stranded.

Barca, the feeling was, were uncertain in the air, and that deficiency was exposed midway through the first half as Graeme Hogg flicked on a Wilkins corner and Robson headed in from close range. Six minutes into the second United leveled on aggregate: Victor played a weak backpass that Urruti hooked out to the United right. Remi Moses crossed and when Urruti spilled Wilkins's first-time shot Robson -- who else? -- was there to snaffle the rebound. United came in a wave of inevitability. Two minutes later, Robson swept the ball left for Arthur Albiston. The fullback crossed, Whiteside's header fell back across goal and there was Frank Stapleton to jab the ball into the net. Job done.

European Cup-Winners' Cup finalDe Kuip, Rotterdam, May 15, 1991

United had won the FA Cup to keep Sir Alex Ferguson in a job a year earlier, but this was the first sense that he might be leading the club back toward the sort of European glory it had enjoyed in the sixties. Robson had been through injury after injury, and had become a far crabbier, less buccaneering player, but it was his free kick that led to the opener midway through the second half, Steve Bruce meeting his flicked delivery with a firm header that was going in anyway when Mark Hughes applied the final touch. Barca's goalkeeper, Carlos Busquets -- Sergio's dad -- was hopelessly out of position; once again Barca looked uncertain under aerial attack.

And it was Robson's chipped pass that set through Hughes, who'd had a miserable time in his brief spell at Barcelona, seven minutes later. "There's a chance for another one here," said Brian Moore on commentary, but then as the forward's touch past Busquets took him wide, he echoed the view of most watching as he continued, "probably not now." But that was to reckon without the ball-striking ability of the Welshman, who, despite running wide, smashed a shot of improbable power back into the empty net ahead of two retreating defenders. Ronald Koeman pulled one back, Nando was sent off for a professional foul on Hughes and Clayton Blackmore cleared a Michael Laudrup effort off the line in a frantic finale, but United hung on and England had its first European trophy after being readmitted to continental competition following the Heysel ban.

Champions League group stageCamp Nou, Barcelona, Nov. 2, 1994

English clubs were back after Heysel, but they had fallen a long way behind the elite, something that was demonstrated repeatedly through the early to mid-nineties. United had drawn 2-2 with Barcelona at Old Trafford, but in the game at Camp Nou they ran into Johan Cruyff's Dream Team at their very best."Shallow United Out of their Depth" roared the Guardian's headline, a theme picked up by David Lacey in his report: "Manchester United found themselves in a different league of champions last night. At times it was like a different world .... The style and quality of Barcelona's victory put ... last season's double-winners depressingly into perspective." Even Sir Alex Fergsuon called the experience "humbling."

Jose Mari Bakero very nearly gave Barca the lead as Romario, latching on to a Jordi Cruyff pass, pulled the ball back, but when his shot was blocked, Cruyff helped it on to Hristo Stoichkov, whose drive beat Gary Walsh via a deflection off Bruce. Romario seized on a long pass from Stoichkov to double that advantage just before halftime. The third was majestic, Stoichkov playing in Romario who checked and rolled the ball back for the Bulgarian to lash in from the edge of the box. Albert Ferrer added a late fourth, beating Walsh at the second attempt after being picked out by Pep Guardiola.

Old Trafford, Manchester, Sept. 16 1998, Camp Nou, Barcelona, Nov. 25, 1998,

In the final two years of the last millennium, football enjoyed a brief golden age of attacking football that culminated at Euro 2000. United's run to the Champions League was littered with memorable games, but in terms of pure attacking zest and head-shaking wonder at the magnificence of it all, there was nothing to match their two games against Barcelona.

In the first, at Old Trafford, Ryan Giggs headed United in front from a David Beckham cross, and Scholes added a second on 25 minutes after a Dwight Yorke overhead had been saved. Sonny Anderson pulled one back just after halftime and Giovanni leveled from the penalty spot after an hour. Four minutes later Beckham had United back ahead with a free-kick, but another penalty, this time converted by Luis Enrique after Nicky Butt had been sent off for handling a goalbound shot, made it 3-3.

It was thrilling, barely credible stuff: surely the second game couldn't match it? If anything, it was even better. Anderson struck in the first minute after Luis Figo had nodded down a Giovanni cross, but Yorke equalized after 25 minutes, receiving a Jesper Blomqvist pass and driving in from just outside the box. The Yorke-Andy Cole partnership was, at its best, mesmerizing, and they conjured the game's third goal eight minutes after the break, exchanging two one-twos before Cole sidefooted in. A Rivaldo free kick leveled things up again four minutes later, but Yorke restored United's lead with a near-post header from a Beckham cross. This time the lead lasted five minutes, before Sergi crossed from the left, Rivaldo, back to goal, controlled on his chest, and hooked the ball over his right shoulder to make it 3-3. Again. Quite, quite breathtaking.

Champions League finalStadio Olimpico, Rome, May 27, 2009

There were 10 minutes when United were in total control, evoking memories of their semifinal victory over Barca a year earlier. Park Ji-sung wasted a great chance, Cristiano Ronaldo went close, then Anderson and Michael Carrick failed to pick up an Andres Iniesta surge, Samuel Eto'o turned inside Nemanja Vidic far too easily, and Barca had the lead. Thereafter, Anderson and Carrick lost all composure and Barca simply kept the ball, almost toying with United in their dominance.

This was possession as defensive weapon, United left to chase and chase so that when they did occasionally win the ball back they were so exhausted and so discombobulated they could do nothing with it. Lionel Messi headed a second from an Andres Iniesta cross with 20 minutes remaining, but Barcelona's victory was far more emphatic than 2-0. This felt like 1994 all over again: the hapless English team chasing desperately after the more sophisticated Europeans. Yet had United scored in that first ten minutes, it might have been very different.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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