Tonight, Manchester United face FC Rostov in the Last 16 of the Europa League, but facing a small Russian team in Europe’s second tier competition is sure to bring back painful memories.
In any of its various incarnations, the Europa League is still the only major trophy that United are yet to win. It’s not a competition they have a particularly wonderful record in either, and against Russian opposition, they have played two ties and lost both times.
In 1992 their conquerors were Torpedo Moscow, against whom they lost 4-3 on penalties in the very first round. Only three years later, history struck again, as United made another swift European exit from the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle, losing – this time on away goals – to Rotor Volgograd.
Torpedo are undoubtedly Russian minnows when it comes to competing in European competition, though they did win league titles in their 1960s Soviet heyday. Volgograd, however, didn’t have even that sort of pedigree: when they were drawn against United in the 1995/96 UEFA Cup, it was only their second ever European tie, after losing to Nantes in the first round of the same competition the season previously.
But after a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Volgograd – a town perhaps better known worldwide by its former name, Stalingrad – United thought that bringing a small Russian team to Old Trafford after drawing the first leg should result in comfortable victory.
And yet, a strong side featuring Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole found itself 2-0 down after just 25 minutes, as two mistakes from Steve Bruce were capitalised upon by a fluid Volgograd attack.
Paul Scholes was introduced by Sir Alex Ferguson before half-time to add to United’s attacking threat, and the change paid off as he pulled a goal back for United.
If they were expecting to stroll to qualification with relative ease after that, however, they had misjudged their opponents. Although Bruce almost atoned for his earlier errors by hitting the crossbar with a diving header in the second half, and although United managed 18 shots on target throughout the game, United were still behind after 89 minutes.
That’s when Peter Schmeichel used perhaps one of his greatest assets: his intimidating stature. He left his goal and jogged all the way up into the Volgograd box for every United set piece in the last few minutes of the match. The sight of the luminous green cloth wrapped loosely around 6 feet 3 inches of colossal, Nordic bulk would have been enough to inspire terror in the heart of any defender, but it wasn’t just Schmeichel’s size that inspired awe.
From a Ryan Giggs corner, the Danish goalkeeper’s run – from deep at the back post to a central space by the penalty spot – was the sort of movement you’d expect from seasoned centre forward, not a titan of a goalkeeper.
He met the header with a meaty thud, too, and the power he generated was enough to take the ball over the line despite a similarly hefty deflection. It was cleared away by a waiting Volgograd defender, but such was the pace on the initial header that it allowed the ball to evade a boot on the line for just long enough to result in a goal.
It wasn’t enough, though. The game ended 2-2, and Manchester United crashed out of Europe before September was out.
The only positive aspect of the result, though, was that it kept United’s unbeaten record at home in European competition intact. It was their 56th home game in Europe, and that Schmeichel goal had saved the sequence, but they would only add one more game to that run: the very next season, back in the Champions League this time, United beat Rapid Vienna in the group stage, before succumbing to defeat at home to Fenerbahce in their second home game of the group.
It’s an impressive record. It took until 1996 for any team to beat United at Old Trafford in Europe, but after going to such lengths to maintain it, the fact that United gave it up so limply in the 1996/97 group stages was perhaps a psychological block that led to their second, and more important, home defeat in the very same season. Losing to Fenerbahce in the group stage didn’t matter in the end, but with the floodgates opened, another defeat later on in the competition – the semi-final second leg at home to Borussia Dortmund – cost United a place in their first Champions League final.
If nothing else, it shows the value of the psychological when it comes to football. Schmeichel’s scariness had its effect on the defenders he beat to the ball. United’s loss of their unbeaten home record may have had an effect on their later, more important, home defeat. And if United’s record against Russian teams in the Europa League is anything to go by, Jose Mourinho’s 2017 side will need to be wary.
With talk of a difficult pitch facing United in Rostov-on-don, and with perhaps one eye on an FA Cup tie with Chelsea on Monday night, United will have to make sure their focus is on getting a result in the away leg tonight. If not, there could be more Russian pain in the Europa League for Manchester United.