For younger fans watching Manchester United brush aside the challenge of Chelsea this week to book their place in a fourth Champions League semi-final in five seasons, it must be hard to believe there was ever a time when the Red Devils struggled to make the grade in Europe.
But, in reality, that time was not so long ago. Back in the mid-90s, when the unflappable, silver-haired architect of Tuesday's win was a whippet-like winger with pace and tricks to burn, Fergie's team floundered in the early days of the Champions League. Badly. Galatasaray dumped the Red Devils out before the group stages in their first attempt at winning the big pot in 1993 after they had clinched an elusive first league title, an indignity that was swiftly followed by a mauling at the hands of Romario and Barcelona in the Camp Nou the following year.
Repeatedly shorn of a couple of their best players because of UEFA's foreigners rule (which included the Welsh, Scottish and Irish contingent) and hampered by Fergie's rigid adherence to 4-4-2, United flopped against the cream of the continent. Ferguson's nadir came in the 1995 UEFA Cup, when lowly Rotor Volgograd despatched a stage-struck Man United without seeming to break sweat.
Then came the 1996-97 season, when everything changed for Fergie and his side.
After the delirium of the club's second League and FA Cup double in 1996, a Manchester United squad bursting with the youthful exuberance of Fergie's fledglings and spearheaded by the truly awe-inspiring Eric Cantona had high hopes going into the club's fourth crack at the biggest prize under Ferguson, especially as EU nationals no longer counted as foreigners from that summer.
It may not be the best goal ever scored at Old Trafford, but it carries a mighty significance that paved the way for the successes that would follow, including the treble of Champions League, Premiership and FA Cup just two years later.
In the group stages, however, things looked to be heading into familiarly depressing territory as the Red Devils were comprehensively swatted aside by an imposing Juventus both home and away, then unforgivably blew their 40-year unbeaten home record by losing 1-0 to a mediocre Fenerbache side. Like so many of Ferguson's European campaigns, though, this would be a roller-coaster ride that took in both the sublime and the ridiculous.
A comfortable home win against Rapid Vienna was followed by a professional victory in Turkey, before a rousing performance in the Austrian capital allowed a stuttering Man United squad to sneak into the last eight. And then, at last, after four years of graft, it had happened: for the first time since Busby, Bobby and Best, United were competing in the business end of Europe's elite competition.
Back in the Premier League, the Red Devils had managed to put a dreadful start behind them and were coasting to a fourth title in five years by the time the first leg came around, leaving the team free to focus their efforts on this monumental tie. However, things were not going to be easy. Standing between United and a first European Cup semi-final since 1968 were the Portuguese champions FC Porto, at the time a force to be feared.
Champions in eight of their last ten domestic league campaigns, they were the undisputed top dogs at home and had cruised through their group, picking up 16 points out of 18 and beating a star-studded AC Milan in the San Siro in their opening game along the way. Their Brazilian strikers Mario Jardel and Artur were in prolific form, each bagging four goals in the early stages as they put their opponents to the sword in all three of their away games. Hard as it may be to believe now, United were massive underdogs going into the tie, with many pundits predicting a mauling for Manchester United side in the first leg at Old Trafford.
In just ninety minutes, Manchester United's manager realised they could compete with the very best teams in the Champions League. Not only that, they could take them apart.
In the build-up, things looked even more ominous thanks to a training ground injury to their midfield enforcer and heartbeat, Roy Keane, meaning all the talk before kick-off was about how the then plain old Alex Ferguson would reshuffle his pack. In the end, he opted for a bold 4-3-1-2, with Cantona in behind Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the dependable Norwegian Ronny Johnsen as the anchor of midfield. This adventurous, experimental line-up was a big gamble, but it was to pay off massively.
For me, going to this game was a no-brainer. March 4th 1997 was my younger brother's 19th birthday and neither of us could think of anywhere we'd rather be than at Old Trafford the following night. The atmosphere was raucous, the crowd urging the team on in a way that hadn't been heard for some time. This was a proper European night, against a proper team for a place in the semi-finals of the continent's top competition. Game on.
Roared on the red army, the home team started brightly and took the lead when a stooping David May gleefully bundled in a corner to spark a wave of relief that things might actually be going United's way on the main stage. Things got even hotter when Cantona -who had struggled for form in what would prove to be his final season as a professional footballer - seized on a loose ball and fired past Hilario in goal for a 2-0 half-time lead.
With such a slender cushion, though, things were very much still in the balance, and nobody was taking anything for granted as the second half got underway. And then it came. In one rapid, rapier thrust through the Portuguese rearguard, Giggs's explosive goal after an hour changed everything.
It may not be the best goal ever scored at Old Trafford, but it carries a mighty significance that paved the way for the successes that would follow, including the treble of Champions League, Premiership and FA Cup just two years later. It started when Cantona, his chest puffed out and in acres of room after picking up a loose ball on the edge of his own box after a weak Porto attack, set Andy Cole free with a long, curling pass down the left wing that seemed to caress the touchline before settling perfectly in the striker's path.
As Cole edged forward waiting for support, Giggs made a magnificent run behind him and into the box, travelling at a speed more akin to a cheetah getting a wriggle on in pursuit of its prey than a skinny Welshman, his curly hair billowing behind him like a dodgy mudflap. Showing an awareness that he would go onto enhance during his partnership with Dwight Yorke, Cole slipped an inch-perfect pass into Giggs's path, which the winger joyously toe-bunged under the keeper and into the net.
In the end, he opted for a bold 4-3-1-2, with Cantona in behind Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the dependable Norwegian Ronny Johnsen as the anchor of midfield. This adventurous, experimental line-up was a big gamble, but it was to pay off massively.
Cue delirium in the stands as a new sensation made its way around the Theatre of Dreams: suddenly, United weren't just beating the joint-tournament favourites, they were battering them. And here's the significance of that goal. In that instant, everything changed. Suddenly, from European novices, United had become a team to be reckoned with. A team that could slice through one of the continent's best defences if it chose to do so.
No longer would United quake at the arrival of Europe's elite, as thrilling games against Juventus, Barcelona, Inter and Bayern over the next two seasons would prove. With the faithful in full voice, the remainder of the match was not about keeping the opponents at bay, but about how many more United could score.
In the end, they managed just one more, after great work from Cantona allowed Cole to chip a delightful one over the keeper.
Amid delirium in the stands at the full time whistle, nobody could quite believe it; United hadn't just beaten Porto, they had thumped them, and what the players, fans and manager alike saw that night changed the way the club went into games against the top teams from then on.
That outstanding third goal from Giggs was the catalyst for the club's continued success in Europe since and, while they would go on to fall short against the surprise package and eventual winners of the tournament, Borussia Dortmund, in a semi-final they really should have won, the memories of that great night were seared into the club's collective brain.
In one game, the mentality in Europe changed. In just ninety minutes, Manchester United's manager realised they could compete with the very best teams in the Champions League. Not only that, they could take them apart.
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