Six of the Best: Manchester United’s heroes in European football
Stockholm’s Friends Arena is the setting for Manchester United’s final test in the Europa League – as they look to win this competition for the first time in their history.
But while this trophy is the one omission in the Old Trafford cabinet, the North-West giants have no shortage of heritage on the continental stage.
England’s first winners of the European Cup, they’ve also lifted the trophy twice in the Champions League era – as well as winning the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
So, here’s our super six of Red Devils heroes who can inspire the current crop.
Sir Bobby Charlton
Without doubt the most moving entry on this list, the legendary Charlton was part of the 1958 side decimated by the Munich Air Disaster – an incident which profoundly affected the then-20-year-old emotionally, as well as causing him physical injury.
Fitting then, that he should be the key man 10 years on as the club finally lifted the European Cup with a thrilling 4-1 victory over Benfica after extra-time. The Ashington-born striker scored twice in front of a jubilant crowd of 100,000 Wembley Stadium, as he captained his boyhood club to victory.
Arguably the pinnacle for one of England’s most gifted and beloved footballers.
Nobody did more to ensure United lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup back in 1991 than the legendary Welsh hitman. Though many readers will know Hughes more as a manager than player, he was an immensely powerful, clinical striker who always did the business on the big occasion.
Nowhere was that more true than in Rotterdam on 15 May 1991. Alex Ferguson’s (pre-knighthood) side were underdogs in the Final, against a world-class Barcelona team. But Hughes netted twice against the Spanish giants in a 2-1 victory, with his winning goal slotted home from a near-impossibly tight angle.
Having also scored to help down Legia Warsaw in the Semi-Finals, it’s fair to say Fergie owed a huge debt to ‘Sparky’ as he collected his first European honour as United boss.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
“And Solskjaer has won it!”
Some decisions in this list were tough to make, but Ole’s iconic winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final meant the Norwegian was the first name on our team sheet.
But his last-gasp finish to end United’s 38-year wait for this trophy was far from the Baby-Faced Assassin’s only contribution on the continent for the Red Devils.
He netted 20 European goals in total for the club, including seven in the 2001-02 campaign, as he took the Old Trafford outfit to the Semi-Finals of the UCL almost single-handedly. Not bad for a £1.5m buy from Molde.
Another crucial attacking force in the club’s treble-winning campaign, it’s fair to say United would never have reached the Final without the striking combination of Yorke and Andy Cole. And it’s the Trinidadian’s contribution which just edges it in our eyes.
The pair’s almost telepathic connection saw them produce link-up play which bamboozled one European defence after another, with Yorke notching up eight goals in the process – including a spectacular header away at Juventus, and a neatly-taken double to down Inter Milan. Simply sensational.
Ruud van Nistelrooy
The only man in this list not to win a European honour with the club, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Dutchman smashed the club’s goal record on the continent, registering an incredible 38 times in 47 games between 2001-2006.
Along the way, he chalked up crucial goals against some of the era’s finest sides – Juventus, Real Madrid and Lyon among them. Sadly for the former PSV Eindhoven ace, he suffered the misfortune of playing in a fading United side which lacked the quality to give van Nistelrooy the shot at a Champions League final he so deserved.
We had to choose one man from the 2008 Final, and it was either going to be the Ginger Maestro or John Terry.
In truth, Scholes’ thunderbolt to knock out Barcelona in the nail-biting Semi-Final (Agg: 1-0) was the vindication of years of fantastic performances in Europe which saw Zinedine Zidane label him “my toughest opponent” and Xavi deem him a “role model”.
Having heartbreakingly missed out on glory at the Nou Camp in ’99 due to suspension, he was a key performer at the Luzhniki Stadium nine years later. Hitting double-figures in the European assists charts didn’t hurt his cause in making the cut here, either.
So, do you agree with our selections? Or is there a United great you think we’ve overlooked?
Let us know in the comments section below!
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing