Had it not been for the Munich air disaster in 1958, Manchester United would probably have been going into Saturday’s Champions League final with more than three European titles to its name.
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Led by Matt Busby, United looked like dominating the early years of the European Cup until eight of the team were among 23 people killed on a Munich runway.
The ”Busby Babes” were returning from Belgrade having seen off Red Star to reach the quarterfinals. Amid the grief the Red Devils were eliminated in the next round and it took 10 years of rebuilding before Busby led them into the final, which they won.
United, though, had to wait until 1999 when Alex Ferguson was in charge to reach – and win – another final of the competition by then rebranded as the Champions League.
There was a further nine-year hiatus before United conquered the continent again, but it was Saturday’s opponent – Barcelona – which denied English football’s most successful club a fourth European title in 2009.
For Ferguson, improving United’s record in Europe is one of his last great ambitions, having just led the club to a record-breaking 19th English title. The 69-year-old Scot can produce United’s fourth European title on Saturday at the scene of the first.
1968 – Manchester United 4, Benfica 1
Ten years on from the Munich disaster, it was survivor Bobby Charlton who headed United in front at the start of the second half – and he rounded off the victory in extra time at Wembley Stadium.
The final ended 1-1 after 90 minutes after Jaime Graca had canceled out Charlton’s opener and United goalkeeper Alex Stepney pulled off a fine late save from Eusebio.
United’s lead was restored at the start of extra time by George Best – another member of the so-called ”Holy Trinity featuring Charlton and Dennis Law.
Brian Kidd quickly headed in another before Charlton’s second ensured Matt Busby’s side would be the first English team to win the continent’s most important prize.
1999 – Manchester United 2, Bayern Munich 1
Matt Busby showed United how to win the European Cup and it was on what would have been the Scot’s 90th birthday that the club finally managed to lift the trophy again.
The victory came with one of the most breathtaking comebacks. United had trailed since Mario Basler’s sixth-minute goal and Bayern Munich’s colors were already being pinned to the trophy when the Camp Nou scoreboard hit 90 minutes.
But everything changed inside three minutes of stoppage time, with substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both finding the net in a chaotic conclusion to stun Munich.
2008 – Manchester United 1, Chelsea 1 (Manchester United won 6-5 on penalty kicks)
The third European title came amid commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster – and it was Charlton, who led to the players up to collect their medals in Moscow.
The emotional scenes at the Luzhniki Stadium came after a testy match that saw eight yellow cards and the sending off of Chelsea striker Didier Drogba in extra time.
Cristiano Ronaldo headed in his 42nd goal of the season for United midway through the first half only for Frank Lampard to cancel it out before half time.
But it required a penalty shootout to split the English rivals. Just like in the Premier League title race earlier in the month, United emerged victorious.
John Terry, though, squandered a chance to win the cup for Chelsea, slipping on the wet turf and hitting the post with his penalty kick.
Anderson and Ryan Giggs then netted for United either side of Salomon Kalou’s spotkick. But Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka’s strike was batted away by Edwin van der Sar to spark United celebrations at around 1.30 a.m. local time.
2009 – Barcelona 2, Manchester United 0
Manchester United looked finally ready to dominate Europe when Alex Ferguson’s holders reached a second successive final.
But this was the night when United’s Cristiano Ronaldo was upstaged by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi on the pitch – and Ferguson was outwitted on the sidelines by Pep Guardiola in his first season as a coach.
Despite Ronaldo hitting the post early on in Rome’s Olympic Stadium, United was comprehensively outplayed after Barcelona went ahead with its first attack of the game after 10 minutes.
Samuel Eto’o cut inside a weak tackle by Nemanja Vidic and struck low into the net.
The goal changed the pattern of the play with Barcelona’s stars settling into their confident style of interpassing.
With United producing little danger, Messi completed United’s misery with a rare headed goal in the second half.