MIKE O’NEILL recalls Manchester United going toe-to-toe with the mighty Juventus, and a breakthrough moment for Teddy Sheringham
Football fan? Born in the 80’s? Then you were into Italian football in the 90’s. Gazzetta. Gazza. James Richardson. Channel 4. Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Italian football had it all: the players; the shirts; the chain-smoking coaches. In the mid-90’s Ronaldo’s exploits at Barcelona got the headlines but back then the great sides of Milan and Juventus were the benchmarks.
My first season as a Manchester United season ticket holder – 1996/97 – coincided with us getting drawn in the same Champions League group as Juventus. It was one of those ‘wow’ moments. United vs Juventus. Best in England (as they were then) against the best in Italy (as they were then and are again now). I still remember looking forward to it all day at school. It was November and freezing cold but I didn’t care. It was United against the Juventus of Del Piero, Zidane and Bokšić. And they were playing us. The United of Cantona, Keane and Giggs. The away game two months earlier in the Stadio delle Alpi saw United go down one-nil thanks to a Bokšić winner. This time though you just knew it would be different…
…except it wasn’t. Even with home advantage and a strong side United were outclassed. I’ve always remembered this Juventus performance. It was what in England we’d call ‘typically Italian’, in that they defended their one-nil lead, gained through an atrocious penalty decision when Butt was judged to have fouled Del Piero on the edge of the box. The mentality though, to see out a game in such a bouncing atmosphere, was something that has stuck with me. They were very good. Much better than us, and this was against United’s ‘Double Double’ winning side of 1995/96. Juventus would eventually get through to their second consecutive Champions League final that season, and would lose to Borussia Dortmund.
A year later and United were paired with the Old Lady again in the group stage. That excitement came back and I really thought we could beat them this time. United had a new striker, Teddy Sheringham, signed from Spurs to replace the retired Cantona. Juve had a new face up top as well,
Filippo Inzaghi signed from Atalanta in the summer of ’97. They’d signed Edgar Davids too – but he wasn’t available against us, which was great news as he was world class back then. And so for the third time in two seasons United and Juve slugged it out. It was end-to-end in the first half, backed by another cracking atmosphere at Old Trafford.
My season ticket back then was in the Stretford End lower, on the corner above the tunnel and United attacked that end in the first half. It was all going wrong within the first twenty seconds though when Del Piero scored down the other end. Sheringham, who had been an underwhelming signing for many United fans, had a goal wrongly disallowed, judged to have been offside with his header. Juve had had a couple of decent chances too and it looked like one of those moments that could turn a game and spur the Italian side into killing the game off. It didn’t though.
Giggs was tormenting Juventus, putting in one of those displays that pre-1999 used to light up Old Trafford. In the 37th minute he turned, ran and put a glorious cross in towards the Juventus area. Sheringham, sensing his chance, leapt like a salmon above his marker and scored past Peruzzi. Finally, a breakthrough. I celebrated that more than the other two goals United would score that night. Scholes’ equaliser and Giggs’ 89th-minute effort before a late Zidane consolation were the icing on a very nice European cake.
It was all about that Sheringham breakthrough goal though. We finally got past them. It was, for me, the standout moment of an underwhelming Champions League campaign for a United team that would eventually go out to Monaco in the quarter-finals on away goals. Of course, this victory against this Juventus was just another warm-up ahead of what was to come in the semi-finals of the 1998/99 season. That deserves an article entirely of its own.