By Peter Sterling
Although they have met only four times in the past, the UEFA Champions League meeting between Manchester United FC and AC Milan is rich in a poignant history which will revive powerful memories for fans of both clubs.
The more immediate and happier memories belong to the Milanese, who only 21 months ago turned Old Trafford red and black in joy after their club became European champions for the sixth time when they beat Juventus FC on penalties after their all-Italian final ended in a 0-0 draw.
That final, on 28 May 2003, was played just two days after what would have been the 94th birthday of Sir Matt Busby, the man who made Manchester United and whose dreams of European glory, and their failure, were intrinsically linked with Milan. The Rossoneri are one of the few major European sides United have never got the better of, and their two semi-final defeats in 1958 and 1969 are both linked to the heartbreak and legacy of the Munich air disaster on 6 February 1958.
The facts of the disaster are well documented and are never far from United's collective memory. The BEA Elizabethan aircraft crashed on takeoff at Munich after a refuelling stop following a European Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final aggregate win against FK Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade. In all 23 people died, including eight 'Busby Babes'. Sir Matt was among the 20 survivors.
What is not remembered quite so readily is that United's first match after the disaster did not take place until three months later, when Milan came to Manchester for the first leg of the semi-final. The Italian team were narrowly beaten 2-1 on an emotional night, Denis Viollet, a Munich survivor, one of United's scorers.
Father and son
But Milan were too strong for United's makeshift side, winning the second leg 4-0 to reach the final against Real Madrid CF. Playing against United that night was Cesare Maldini, whose son Paolo lifted the European Cup for Milan at Old Trafford in 2003.
Although Milan ended Busby's dream of a miraculous European triumph in 1958, he eventually rebuilt his club and led them to the trophy ten years later with fellow Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes in the lineup that overcame SL Benfica 4-1 at Wembley.
Busby believed this United team, which also boasted George Best and Denis Law, who missed the 1968 final with a knee injury, could go on and dominate Europe as Madrid had done in the 1950s. But his ambitions were shattered the following April, and once again Milan were his nemesis. After seeing off Waterford United FC, RSC Anderlecht and SK Rapid Wien, United were paired with Milan in the semi-finals and, as in 1958, defeat in the away leg proved costly.
Milan won the first game 2-0 at the San Siro with goals from Angelo Sormani and Kurt Hamrin, and although United edged the return 1-0 at Old Trafford with Bobby Charlton scoring 20 minutes from time, United's one-year reign as European champions was over.
Milan, with Fabio Cudicini in goal, Giovanni Trapattoni and Karl-Heinz Schnellinger in defence and captained by Gianni Rivera, went on to beat AFC Ajax 4-1 in the 1969 final thanks to a hat-trick from Piero Pratti. It was to be another 30 years before United became European champions again, memorably defeating FC Bayern München 2-1 in Barcelona on 26 May 1999 – the day Sir Matt would have been 90.
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