Barcelona versus Manchester United is a fixture with the capacity to leave behind a memory that evokes everything that is great about the game of football.They do not have a rivalry as such; familiarity or proximity are the governing factors there and neither applies in this case, with the teams having met only seven times in a quarter of a century and separated by hundreds of miles of land and sea. Also absent is the whiff of vengeance on either side, the need for a wrong to be righted, for justice to be served. No handled goal, no dodgy referee, no harsh sending off, nothing. Yet the sense of expectation surrounding this fixture is huge.
There is some history – when they first met back in 1984 Manchester United managed to overturn a two goal deficit from the first leg when, amidst a cacophonous atmosphere that many Old Trafford veterans consider to be the greatest the old stadium has ever heard, Bryan Robson inspired a three-goal comeback to put United in the Cup Winners cup semi-finals.
In the same competition seven years later the Red Devils emerged victorious again, this time in the final in Rotterdam, and with a delicious irony it was Mark Hughes, returned to United after a poor spell at the Camp Nou in the mid-eighties, who scored the decisive goals.
Which brings us to the modern arena of combat, the Champions League.
United took their baby steps in the league format in 1994 and escaped from their initial encounter with Barcelona at Old Trafford with a two-all draw thanks to a late goal that proved to be the highlight of Lee Sharpe's time at United. In the return in Catalonia there would be no such fortune. Those in Manchester have always claimed their team hamstrung by the three-foreigner restrictions but any team would have been powerless to stop Stoichkov and Romario in such a devastating mood as they inflicted a seminal four-goal masterclass that must rank among the most one-sided defeats in United’s history.
If that was an indicator on how much ground they had to make up on the elite of the continent then United learnt quickly in time to face Barcelona in the group stages again in 1998.
A breathtaking three-all draw in Manchester was followed, implausibly, by the teams sharing six goals at the Camp Nou in what was then and remains now the greatest game of club football I have ever seen.
A description or a YouTube montage barely tells the story and it seemed an irrelevance after a match where the wider context disappeared and all that mattered was the immediate moment that both teams earned a solitary point and Barcelona were eliminated. Fittingly, United would return to that glorious cathedral of stadium to lift the trophy six months later.
Follow that as they say, as we wait for the next instalment of a tie that has fired the imaginations of both sets of fans, managers and players.
A healthy and mutual respect characterises the relationship between the clubs, who share many similarities – a belief in a certain style of play, an air of romance and on a wider scale a strong regional identity and civic pride in the cultural contribution of their respective cities. Although United have also contested epic battles with Real Madrid through the decades there could never be a similar communal love-in, perhaps due in part to Madrid’s recent penchant for year-long media campaigns to unsettle and sign the best players at Old Trafford, a situation with which Barcelona would readily sympathise.
They are also cursed by the nagging sense, given their stature, of underachievement on club football’s biggest stage.
United, as their neighbours down the M62 never tire of telling them, lag behind Liverpool in the European Cup count by a score of five to two. Over in Spain the disparity is even greater, with Barcelona’s two European Cups dwarfed by the incredible nine titles picked up by their detested domestic rivals at the Bernabeu.
Both clubs find themselves on the same rung of the European ladder as Inter Milan, Porto and Juventus amongst others so an added frisson to this semi-final is the chance in Moscow to enhance their standing amongst Europe’s elite.
First, to battle. The first leg is at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night and the tie will culminate at Old Trafford six days later. We have no right to expect a classic but I hope somewhere in their consciousness the modern cast of star players hold some awareness of just how special this fixture is and approach the game accordingly.