When United Made History

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This Saturday, Manchester United head to Wembley to take on Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final.

Gabriel Tan
And there sure is a sense of deja vu about it. For we have seen this happen some time before.
Granted, the history books will tell us that in 1968, United took the short trip to Wembley to face Benfica in that season's European Cup Final. Benfica, not Barcelona.

Yet one has to remember that was the era during which Benfica effectively ruled European football. Throughout the 1960s, it wasn't Portuguese football as a whole that were kings of the continent. Quite simply, it was Benfica who ran the rule in Europe.

From 1960 to 1970, a decade known as the Golden Era, Benfica became the first club to break Real Madrid's domination over Europe, claiming the trophy in two successive years, as well as making the final on another three occasions.

Long before Barcelona were regarded as the best footballing side in the land as they are now, Benfica were attracting the same superlatives.

Just like how Barca now have a certain wizard by the name of Lionel Messi, Benfica had their very own magician called Eusebio.

During that glorious period, Benfica claimed eight league titles and three cups on the domestic front. They beat Real and Barca in the European Cup Finals of 1961 and 1962, before losing to AC Milan and Inter Milan in 1963 and 1965 respectively.

In 1968, having comfortably seen off Juventus 3-0 on aggregate in the semi-final, Benfica arrived at Wembley favourites to land yet another continental trophy.

United, on the other hand, had a far less comfortable passage to the final. They struggled to beat Polish side Gornik Zabrze 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, before battling to a 4-3 aggregate victory over Real in the semis.

May 29, 1968. A day which promised much but delivered little, at least in the first half at the end of which Benfica and United were tied at 0-0.

Then the second 45 kicked off. Within eight minutes, the deadlock had been broken; Bobby Charlton nodding home a rare headed goal to give United the lead.

United were in the ascendency, but Benfica were creating their fair share of chances, and in the 75th minute, parity was restored when Jaime Graca found the net for the Portuguese outfit.

Then, Eusebio was sent racing through on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat. Nine times out of ten, the Black Panther, as he was affectionately known, would have scored. On this occasion, Alex Stepney pulled off a vital save, and the match went into extra-time.

Just three minutes in, George Best picked up the ball 25 yards out, drove into the Benfica penalty box and rounded Jose Henrique, before tapping into an empty net.

A minute later, birthday boy Brian Kidd added United's third, before Charlton rounded things off with another in the 99th minute.

Eleven minutes later, Concetto Lo Bello of Italy blew the final whistle. United were crowned European champions, and were the first side to bring the trophy back to English soil.

Again this Saturday, the European Cup will be sat somewhere in Wembley Stadium. Again, United will try to "bring the trophy back to English soil".

But many years have passed since that glorious night in 1968. Since then, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa have all gone on to become English winners of the European Cup.

Against a mighty Barcelona team, claiming this season's trophy would be some feat for the current United outfit. But you get the feeling nothing will quite compare to the time when history was made by Sir Matt Busby and his charges.
Manchester United 4-1 Benfica - May 29, 1968
Wembley Stadium, London
Manchester United: Alex Stepney, Shay Brennan, Bill Foulkes, David Sadler, Tony Dunne, Pat Crerand, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, George Best, Brian Kidd, John Aston
Scorers: Charlton (53, 99), Best (93), Kidd (94)
Benfica: Jose Henrique, Adolfo Calisto, Humberto Fernandes, Jacinto Santos, Fernando Cruz, Jaime Graca, Mario Coluna, Jose Augusto, Jose Torres, Eusebio, Antonio Simoes
Scorers: Graca (75)

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