Is there anything better than waking up, drinking your cup of coffee and waiting for the draw for the UEFA Champions League Group stage? What if you get three former winners of the European Cup/Champions League in the same group? Well, it was the case of the 1998/1999 season. In arguably the “ultimate group of death” we had Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and Manchester United. And the outsiders, the champions of Sweden, Brondby. The German side was a three-time winner of the trophy after consecutive successful campaigns in 1973/1974, 1974/1975 and 1975/1976. On the other side, Barcelona triumphed in the 1991/1992 season after the converted free kick of Ronald Koeman against Sampdoria while Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968 after a 4-1 win against Benfica.
The magnitude of the group is even bigger if we think about the format of Champions League at that point. With 6 groups of 4 teams each, the rule was simple: the first place was qualified automatically in the quarter-finals and the two best second places from the six groups benefited from qualification in the next phase. We could have had two European Cup winners knocked out before the quarter-finals.
The first clash of titans was a total war. A 3-3 draw at Old Trafford between FC Barcelona and Manchester United. The English club led 2-0 after only 24 minutes, with Giggs and Scholes on the scoreboard. A young and blonde David Beckham was the main star of the game with an assist and a perfect cross for the second goal scored by Scholes. The Spanish team equalized after half-time in just 12 minutes after Anderson and Giovanni put the ball in the back of the net of Schmeichel. Class of ‘92 showed their talent again in the 63rd minute when David Beckham made it 3-2. It was trademark Becks: free-kick, a curled shot and a fabulous goal for Man United. Luis Enrique, the current coach of Barca, equalized after a penalty and established the final score. 3-3 and a blockbuster to be remembered.
A new spectacular draw followed up, 2-2 at Olympiastadium as Bayern and Manchester United met for the first time in the 1998/1999 season. Elber scored first, after a sudden moment of sleep for the Brits. Fergie’s boys showed the fighting back spirit that will win the trophy eventually. Yorke and Scholes made it 2-1 for United, only to be denied by the late goal of Elber, who scored with an open goal in front of him in the 90th minute. 10 goals after two games and a Broadway show for the neutrals.
In this triangle, a win will mean a big step forward and Bayern knew that and seized the opportunity. They won 1-0 against Barcelona at home after Effenberg found himself all alone in the 6 meters box. The midfielder scored the only goal of the game in the 45th minute. Barcelona’s revenge was scheduled after two weeks in Catalunya. A chance for Louis Van Gaal to show again his offensive and crazy football. Giovanni scored in the 29th minute after a penalty kick but Bayern showed once again why they were so feared at the debut of the competition. Zickler and Salihamidzic put an impressive comeback on stage and the late goal of the latter (87’) decreased the chances to see Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the competition. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team was on fire and the Spanish team seemed to be odd one out.
Barcelona and Manchester United were face-to-face again and the result was a blockbuster. Another 3-3 draw after a number of twists and 5-star performance from Yorke and Rivaldo, both scoring twice in the opposing goal. The partnership between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole was devastating as the second goal of the visitors was a pure one-two combination from the two strikers. The Brazilian Rivaldo scored two trademark goals after a free kick from 25 meters and a magnificent bicycle kick. The final attacks of Barcelona proved to be not good enough to crack the code and Manchester United was one step closer to qualification.
In the last duel of the triumvirate, Fergie’s gang and Bayern drew (1-1) and both qualified for the next stage. Roy Keane opened the score with a shot from the edge of the 16-metres box but his brilliant effort was denied by a late effort from the German side who equalized. Manchester United was actually the lucky loser as they finished just after Real Madrid in the standings containing the teams which finished second in their groups. We had 22 goals in 6 matches, beautiful football from legends and an unbelievable experience for our eye. Brondy produced a big surprise in the first match, when they beat Bayern at home (2-1), but the remaining games were lost and the final goal difference speaks for itself: 4 goals scored and 18 conceded.
Bayern and Manchester United ended the rivalry in Barcelona. Camp Nou hosted the legendary final between the two teams, as the English club made possible one of the most incredible comeback in football history. Two goals in additional time from Sheringham and Scholes annulled the perfect freekick of Mario Basler from the 6th minute. After 85 minutes in the lead, Bayern went from ecstasy to agony in just two corner kicks. Words are simply not enough.