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Champions League Classics: Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid

Get the background on this drama-packed 2003 quarter-final, then watch it on UEFA.tv.

Real Madrid’s 3-1 win in the first leg left them in a strong position ahead of the return match at Old Trafford, but this UEFA Champions League quarter-final decider was anything but a formality.



First leg highlights: Real Madrid 3-1 Man. United
First leg highlights: Real Madrid 3-1 Man. United

Real Madrid’s all-star ‘Galácticos’ had reached their peak in the 2001/02 season, winning the club's ninth European Cup, but Vicente Del Bosque’s side blew hot and cold the following campaign. A summer signing from Inter Milan, Ronaldo was on song in the Spanish Liga, but it was his strike partner Raúl González who did the damage in the quarter-final first leg against United, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory. However, Raúl was ruled out of the second leg with appendicitis. Did that offer hope to Sir Alex Ferguson’s United?

Key players

Ronaldo: The Brazilian phenomenon had scored eight at the 2002 FIFA World Cup as his team took the title, but – hampered by injury – had struck just twice in his first UEFA Champions League season with Madrid. With attacking partner Raúl absent, could he carry the extra burden?

Ruud van Nistelrooy: The Dutchman was top scorer in the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League with ten goals and came into the Madrid decider having already notched 11 in the 2002/03 competition.

Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo: Great Real Madrid v Man. United goals
Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo: Great Real Madrid v Man. United goals

David Beckham: Exiled to the substitutes' bench following a high-profile dressing-room spat with Sir Alex – the manager kicked a football boot at his star midfielder following an FA Cup loss to Arsenal – Beckham felt his days at Old Trafford were numbered. Was he right?

What happened

Van Nistelrooy went close early as the home crowd roared United on, but Ronaldo beat Fabien Barthez to give the visitors the lead – and a crucial away goal – on 12 minutes. Van Nistelrooy replied just before half-time, but the Red Devils were undone early in the second period as Ronaldo made it 2-1, United having failed to clear their lines after Luís Figo hit the bar.

It was 2-2 almost immediately, Iván Helguera diverting a Juan Sebastian Verón shot into his own net, yet Ronaldo swiftly completed his hat-trick with a fierce effort from the edge of the box, putting United 6-3 behind on aggregate. Game over? Not quite. Beckham came off the bench, scoring a typically smart free-kick before scrambling in a second five minutes from time to make it 6-5 overall. That was the end of the scoring, and the Old Trafford crowd generously rose to applaud Ronaldo when the match winner was brought off.

Ronaldo reflects on Old Trafford hat-trick
Ronaldo reflects on Old Trafford hat-trick


David Beckham, United midfielder: "Ronaldo destroyed us. Raúl was out with appendicitis, so the big man was up front on his own. The whole crowd got to their feet and gave the bloke the kind of ovation a United player would have got. The Manchester crowd knows its football and knew they’d been privileged to be there, watching Ronaldo play."

Ronaldo, Madrid forward: "I will never forget this night."

Vicente Del Bosque, Madrid coach: "The game could have gone either way at any stage. The supporters provided a great example and the players did too. A fantastic occasion."

Sir Alex Ferguson, United manager: "It was a pleasure to be involved in a match of that nature. It produced football of incredible imagination."

Elsewhere that evening

Great 2002/03 Champions League goals
Great 2002/03 Champions League goals

AC Milan seized victory from the jaws of defeat in their quarter-final against Ajax. Having drawn 0-0 in Amsterdam, they were on the verge of an away-goals exit with the scores level at 2-2 at San Siro. However, Jon Dahl Tomasson struck in added time to send Carlo Ancelotti’s men into a semi-final with city rivals Inter.


Defeat by Juventus in the semis marked the start of a long wait for ‘La Décima’ – Real Madrid’s tenth European Cup – which did not come their way until 2014. While they won the Liga, they let go of coach Del Bosque in summer 2003, bringing in Carlos Queiroz as his replacement. Beckham, meanwhile, never quite made up with Sir Alex, and left United for Madrid that June.


Initially, it seemed 2003/04 would be a triumph for the Blancos, but – with top scorer Ronaldo getting injured in the closing stages – Madrid experienced an extraordinary collapse. They lost the Copa del Rey final, fell to Monaco in the UEFA Champions League quarters, then lost their last five Liga matches to gift the Spanish title to Valencia.

You can watch a full re-run of the game on UEFA.tv.