A look back at one of the many memorable comebacks in Manchester United's treble winning campaign.

The 1998-99 season will always be remembered as one of the best (if not the very best) seasons in the history of Manchester United Football Club. This is not just because of the fact that United completed an incredible treble but also because of the manner in which it was achieved.  United could have very well finished this particular season without winning any trophy, so close was the margin between victory and defeat. The hallmark of the season was how United constantly managed to come back from seemingly hopeless situations. The romantic element of this season is what endears itself to the hearts of United fans. The success in Europe was the biggest achievement. United had done the domestic double and the double double under the  management of Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1990s but success in the Champions League was more hard to come by with the foreigner rule proving to be a hindrance. Cantona’s early retirement was a result of him being disappointed with himself for not helping the club to that elusive European title (as was hinted by Gary Neville in his book). Winning the Champions League was undoubtedly the sweetest prize of 1998-99 season for the team and the dramatic manner in which it was done was truly legendary.

In contrast to the magic and romance in Manchester, times in Turin were looking quite grim. After 4 successful seasons under Marcello Lippi in which Juventus reached the final of the Champions League 3 times between 95-96, 96-97 and 97-98 as well as 3 scudettos; the old lady had a torrid season in 98-99. The biggest problem for Juventus in this season was a lack of goals. Even though they only conceded 2 more than eventual winners Milan, they scored 17 fewer goals than Milan and 27 less than 5th placed Roma whom they ended up level on points with. Alessandro Del Piero was out injured for most of the season and the team’s top scorer Filippo Inzaghi only managed 13 goals. Juventus eventually finished 7th overall after losing to Udinese in the UEFA Cup playoffs. Lippi was relieved of his duties during the course of the season and was replaced by the Parma manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Under Ancelotti, Juventus reached the semi finals of the Champions League to face treble hunting Manchester United.

The 2nd leg at the Stadio Delle Alpi was beautifully set up by the 1-1 draw in the first leg at Old Trafford. Antonio Conte gave Juventus the lead after a beautifully crafted move and had chances to increase their lead in the game before Ryan Giggs equalized for United in stoppage time (typical of the United season). United went into the second leg in Turin as underdogs  and things quickly got a lot tougher early on but in this particular season, United were not to be denied.

In terms of team news, Ryan Giggs did not feature in the game at all due to injury while Paolo Montero was not fit enough to start for Juventus but was on the bench.

First Half

                                                           "Born on the offside."

United went into the game needing to score at least 1 goal and soon the need to score became twofold. Juventus found themselves 2-0 within the first 10 minutes of the game thanks to an Inzaghi brace. But this still didn’t change the fact that United needed 2 goals or more to win the tie.

United were without any real holding midfielder as such as both Keane and Butt pushed up the field. This caused a problem in that it might leave room for the ever dangerous Zidane to operate in. United tried to solve this problem ,not by switching to a 3 man midfield with one midfielder dropping deep, but by pushing a central defender higher.

Initially, it appeared as though Johnsen was the defender to be pushed up. There were two problems for this – 1) Zidane wasn’t playing on his side. 2) Inzaghi’s runs into the left channel were dragging the team completely out of shape defensively.

Juventus’ 2nd goal, fortuitous as it was, came about because of this.

Note how close Johnsen (number 5) is to Edgar Davids (on the ball). Davids picks out Pessotto (he’s not a ghost despite the image) who made a run down the left flank. Pessotto then picks a ball through the hole in the defence which came about because of Johnsen’s high positioning to pick out Inzaghi who drags the covering defender Stam with him to the left and then scores. 

United changed things later in the half. Stam was pushed up onto Zidane while Johnsen became more of the cover defender.

After going 2-0 up, Juventus were quite happy to sit deep and see things out. They often used Inzaghi as the out ball but never really got enough support to him. Most of the Juventus chances did fall to Inzaghi and his ingenuity in the box was the only real bright spark offensively for the home side.

United pushed very high up the pitch. At times from Schmeichel’s kicks you could see all the other 21 players inside the Juventus half. United also managed to dominate possession and had over 60% of the ball at one point in the first half which is extremely impressive away from home against an Italian side.

Despite the possession, United didn’t create much from midfield. Beckham and Blomqvist didn’t really get into the game in offensive sense. Beckham drifted inwards quite a bit as well. The midfield were mostly excellent work rate however and United won a lot of tackles.

Yorke and Cole

                                                                   "Two of a kind."

United’s main offensive threat once again came from the Yorke and Cole duo much like most of the season. Despite playing together only for a fairly short period of time, Yorke and Cole have gone down as one of the best striker partnerships in history. The level of understanding they showed together was quite remarkable. Their movement was synchronized and their combination play was sumptuous (see the game away to the Nou Camp earlier in the campaign).

Their movement was varied in this game. Yorke was mainly more central while Cole drifted more to the flank but they were varied in their movements and so no real generalization could be made. They were a constant threat to a Juventus backline which was not looking very confident, as Fergie mentioned in his half time interview.

The 2nd United goal was a direct result of the Yorke-Cole combination. Neville hoofs a long ball up top to Beckham who heads to Cole (far right) who has drifted into space out wide.

Cole then crosses to Yorke who made it 2-2.

This long ball method was proving to be very effective for United. Soon afterwards, another Neville long ball was not properly dealt with by Juventus and Yorke hit the post. It is perhaps not surprising that United had to resort to this given the lack of – 1) A really creative midfield. 2) A deep midfielder who could carry the ball out of defence and distribute efficiently to the flanks.

The game was very well poised going into half time. It was all attack from United in the first half with Juventus mainly camped inside their own half. Both teams now had to change strategy. United needed to hang on to the slender away goals lead while Juventus needed to attack more. The half time interval did give an opportunity to both sides to re-strategize before the 2nd half.

Second Half

Ancelotti did not waste any time in making substitutions or changing the system. Iuliano and Birindelli were brought off while Amoruso and Montero were brought on. Di Livio went to right back, Davids went to the left side while Zidane went into a slightly deeper role. Juventus went to a 4-4-2ish shape without the ball while with the ball it was more of a narrow 4-3-1-2 shape.

Ancelotti made all the right substitutions based on the first half display. Zidane wasn’t really involved in the first half and Juventus’ main out ball was a diagonal ball to Inzaghi but they struggled to get enough men in support of him. Now they had Amoruso to give Inzaghi company up front and they got Zidane much more involved in the buildup play.

Edgar Davids was put on the left but came inside when Juve had the ball and Pessotto became more of a wing back in the second half. Juventus started to dominate possession from the get go in the second half and Ancelotti’s changes did play a role in that. United also dropped much deeper in the second half looking to hold out for the win.

Despite Juventus’ increased dominance of possession, United did not bring on another midfield. Instead, the defensively impressive Blomqvist was brought off for Paul Scholes. Paul Scholes went right into midfield while Nicky Butt was shifted to the left which was possibly done to deal with the Juventus narrowness on the right as Di Livio was not really that much of a threat and it was possibly better to get Butt in there.

Both teams had chances to score in the second half before the eventual United game winner. Despite looking to hold out for the rest  of the game, United were still quite prepared to commit men forward when possible. Both Irwin and Neville did get forward when the opportunity presented itself. Irwin hit the post in the second half. Juventus could have also gone ahead when Inzaghi almost got his boot onto a fizzing cross across the box.

Eventually, United got a 3rd after some more poor defending as Montero gave the ball away to Yorke who then went past both Juventus centre backs in one movement and was brought down by Peruzzi  but there was no need of awarding a penalty after Andy Cole finished to make it 3-2 and send United into the final of the Champions League, the first time United got to the final of Europe's premier competition in 3 decades.

                                                            "Full speed ahead Barcelona."

Conclusion

A very memorable match for another incredible Manchester United comeback in the 98-99 season. It was another example of the incredible determination in the United squad. Even after being 2-0 down away from home and seemingly staring down the barrel, the thought of victory was still more prominent in the minds of the players than the fear of defeat. Indeed, the success of the team was down to the hard work, determination and fearlessness more than anything else. Most of the team were defensively excellent on the day.  The tactical nous was with Juventus but it was cancelled out by a dogged United team. Juventus’ best opportunity of winning the tie was probably in trying to counter well while United were really going for it with a very high defensive line in the first half but they didn’t do that particularly well at all and perhaps didn’t have the players for it either.

For United, it was another step towards a historic treble. This was also United’s first ever victory on Italian soil in a European competition. For Juventus, a semi final in the Champions League itself was biggest highlight in their season which was their worst in 8 years.

In the coming seasons, Juventus performed relatively better by being runners-up to Roman sides Lazio and Roma in consecutive seasons. But the club’s dreadful performance in the 2000-01 season’s Champions League in which Juventus got knocked out in the first group phase, their worst performance in 13 years. This was the final  nail in the coffin for the Ancelotti reign which was never a popular one with the fans for Ancelotti’s past connections with rival teams. Marcello Lippi was brought back to replace him.

For United, things could only really get worse from such a monumental achievement. Although the following season saw United win the title comfortably, the success in Europe was short lived.  The treble United’s brand of football was ultimately unsustainable for the sort of European success that one may have expected from a squad of such quality as underachieving Real Madrid and Fernando Redondo showed the following season. It would take 9 years and a much more pragmatic approach in Europe for United to once again taste Champions League success.