Remembering The Last (And Only) Time Manchester United Played Atletico Madrid

The Red Devils have only contested two competitive games against Atleti, across two legs in 1991
14:00, 23 Feb 2022

European football is a closed-shop, and we have grown accustomed to seeing the same sides play each other frequently. The Champions League knockout stage in particular is usually the preserve of a never-changing cast of football’s ruling class. This makes tonight’s clash between Atletico Madrid and Manchester United particularly fascinating. Considering both sides are a regular feature at football’s top table, they have actually faced off in just two competitive games.

Both fixtures took place in the same season, as United and Atleti squared off in a two-legged tie in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Alex Ferguson, not yet a knight of the realm, had led United to the first continental trophy of his tenure the previous year, and they entered the 1991/92 edition as holders. The Colchoneros had won the 1991 Copa del Rey to book their place in UEFA’s straight-knockout extravaganza. 

Ferguson had not yet ended United’s league title drought, as it snaked on into a third decade. But the green shoots of the team the Red Devils would become were in evidence. In fact, of the eleven players that started the first leg at Old Trafford, only Neil Webb would leave before the following season’s Premier League title victory. 

The team was positively heaving with names that would become part of United folklore. Peter Schmeichel between the posts, protected by the lynchpin of the Gary Pallister-Steve Bruce partnership. Paul Ince and Bryan Robson in midfield; the Guvnor and Captain Marvel. Mark Huges and Brian McClair up top, ‘Sparky’ and ‘Choccy’, in a pairing that sounds like a buddy cop movie. It was quite the side Ferguson fielded on 23rd October 1991. And they got absolutely stuffed.

Paulo Futre, briefly of West Ham United in later years, scored just after the half hour mark to give his side the advantage. Managed by the great Luis Aragones, Atletico simply would not be broken down. Ferguson shuffled his deck, bringing on Russell Beardsmore and Lee Martin for Ince and Mike Phelan. In a neat piece of symmetry, the latter is now a coach at United and will be in attendance to see these teams play each other for the first time since his playing days.

Just when the Red Devils must have thought they were going to come away with a manageable 1-0 deficit they could overturn in the second leg, Futre struck again. As United were reeling from the Portugal international’s second, Atletico Madrid struck again through Manolo. Coming just a minute after the second goal, this was a devastating one-two punch that punctured United’s chances of reaching the quarter-finals. 

Arriving just four days after a 2-0 win over Sheffield United that kept Fergie’s men top of the newly-formed Premier League, and with a Manchester derby up next, the manager shuffled his deck for the trip to Spain. The United side at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium contained fringe faces such as back-up goalkeeper Gary Walsh, 1990 FA Cup hero Mark Robins and Clayton Blackmore. Also in the side was a 17-year-old making his European debut for the club. The identity of that teenager getting a first taste of continental football? Ryan Giggs.

A European bow for the Welshman, who would go on to make 157 appearances in continental competition, was the most noteworthy aspect of the second leg from a United perspective. Hughes gave the away side a fourth-minute lead, instilling hope that a magical night could be on the horizon. But once again, the Reds spent long periods toiling against a team who gave nothing away easily. 

It fell to the Blond Angel to vanquish the Devils, as the great Bernd Schuster’s 68th minute strike snuffed out any thoughts of a comeback. Manchester United were out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, never to return. Ferguson’s men would spend the foreseeable future in either the UEFA Cup or newly-minted Champions League, while the Cup Winners’ Cup would be discontinued in 1999. Given the year it ended, it’s doubtful many United fans would have noticed.

Tonight’s game will take place on a bigger stage and for a bigger prize. The Champions League is the defining event in club football, and both teams are looking to kickstart mediocre seasons. There is plenty of intrigue to be had, so sit back and enjoy. After all, games between these two don’t come along very often.

Picture: Dan Smith/Allsport

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